some college professors have developed special science courses for K-12 teachers. The Physics Education Group in the Department of Physics at the University of Washington offers special courses for both preservice and inservice teachers. The curriculum is based on Physics by Inquiry (McDermott et al., 1996), a set of laboratory-based modules that have been developed on the basis of research on the learning and teaching of physics. (References to relevant research can be found in McDermott and Redish, 1999.) The courses help teachers develop a functional understanding of important physical concepts. This level of understanding

A University-Based Physicist Discusses Concept Formation in the Laboratory: Lillian’s Story

The curriculum used in physics courses for teachers should be in accord with the instructional objectives. If the capacity to teach “hands-on” science is a goal, then teachers need to work through a substantial amount of content in a way that reflects this spirit. However, there is another compelling reason why the choice of curriculum is critical. Teachers often try to implement instructional materials in their classrooms that are very similar to those that they have used in their college courses. Whether intended or not, teaching methods are learned by example. The common tendency to teach physics from the top down, and to teach by telling in lectures, runs counter to the way precollege students (and many university students) learn best. Therefore, courses for precollege teachers should be laboratory-based.

In the curriculum that we have developed and use in our courses for preservice and inservice teachers, all instruction takes place in the laboratory. The students work in small groups with equipment similar to that used in precollege programs. The approach differs from the customary practice of introducing a new topic by stating definitions and assertions. Instead, students are presented with a situation in which the need for a new concept becomes apparent. Starting with their observations, they begin the process of constructing a conceptual model that can account for the phenomenon of interest. Carefully structured questions guide them in formulating operational definitions of important concepts. They begin to think critically about what they observe and learn to ask appropriate questions of their own. As they encounter new situations, the students test their model and find some instances in which their initial model is inadequate and that additional concepts are needed. The students continue testing, extending, and refining the model to the point that they can predict and explain a range of phenomena. This is the heart of the scientific method, a process that must be experienced to be understood.

To illustrate the type of instruction summarized above, here is a specific example based on a topic included in many precollege programs. It describes how we guide

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