You are here


High-Tech Experiments

These Michigan students are using professional equipment to learn physics

Ramps, rolling tires, stop watches and lots of error-prone calculations used to be the mainstays of teaching physics to students at the Macomb Academy of Arts and Sciences in Armada, Mich. Now, if not for the age of the students, a visitor at the school might think she landed at a company specializing in ergonomics.

With a grant from the Convergence Education Foundation, Macomb has purchased equipment that allows students and teachers to videotape objects--or people--in motion, and digitally map movement to compute angles and velocity.

"Now we can videotape people pirouetting, and with the Peak Motus [software] we're able to prove a lot of the laws of conservation of energy and motion in a rotational medium, something that can't be done without this equipment," says Jeff Shull, a science teacher at Macomb.

Using technology to conduct experiments "cuts down the time we spend researching, and gives us more accurate results." -Kristen Clark, 11th-grade student

Peak Motus is an expensive (nearly $20,000) set of software applications created by Peak Performance Technologies Inc. that are typically used by professional athletes and ergonomics experts to measure biomechanical movement. In fact, teacher Rob Blume was first introduced to the technology when he was a graduate student in physical therapy more than a decade ago. But when combined with digital video cameras, a desktop PC, movie-making software, and other presentation equipment, the Peak Motus software becomes the means through which Macomb students conduct advanced physics research projects and present findings to teachers and peers.

Examining Tennis Serves and Corked Bats

Kristen Clark, a junior, and three teammates at Macomb have spent the past several months analyzing the serves of a varsity tennis player by videotaping the athlete, digitizing the video, plotting points on the video and using the Peak Motus software to turn the points into an animated stick figure. Eventually they'll determine how racket speed affects ball velocity. The experiment is part of a mandatory annual research requirement at the school that requires students to come up with a project, professionally present the idea to teachers, search literature for relevant research, collect data for 10 weeks, analyze the data and eventually write a paper reporting the results.

All of these tasks map closely to Michigan benchmarks in math and science, and the academy's goal of integrating the two subjects. For students, though, using the technology is "very fun," Clark says. And it "cuts down the time we spend researching, and will give us more accurate results."

And hopefully they'll show that tennis player how to get more power into her serves. Other students are conducting research projects on topics such as measuring how the weight of a backpack affects the curvature of the spine by loading up their classmates with baggage, then videotaping them on a treadmill. Another group is using video technology and the Peak Motus software to try to figure out whether Sammy Sosa's corked bat really made much of a difference.

"It helps us do more advanced research, without it we'd have to work on [projects] a lot simpler than this," says senior Kim Quandt, who's involved in the backpack experiment. "It's definitely more interesting."

Engineering Engineers

That's precisely the point. The $60,000, three-year grant from Convergence is rooted in the theory of brain-based learning, an understanding that when students are engaged with high energy and emotions in learning about a problem they're interested in, the opportunity for the creation of long-term memories increases dramatically, says Karl Klimek, vice-chairman and project development consultant for the Convergence Education Foundation. Klimek, also a principal in the education consultancy 2 Perspectives, helped Shull and others at Macomb come up with the grant idea and write the application for the Peak equipment, along with Panasonic digital cameras, a Windows XP desktop computer with DVD read and write capabilities, and movie-making software.

Klimek, a curriculum expert and a former high school principal, is a proponent of brain-based learning theories and encouraging curriculum based on adaptive decision making as opposed to veridical decision making.

"The teacher doesn't become a relayer of information ..., but a facilitator of in the moment learning opportunities."
-Karl Klimek, vice-chairman and project development consultant The Convergence Education Foundation

"The idea behind this grant was if [the school] got this Peak Motus equipment they could allow students to pursue their own research using this technology," Klimek says. "With that, the teacher doesn't become a relayer of information in a linear curriculum, but a facilitator of in the moment learning opportunities. They can then slip those benchmarks in at those peak learning moments."

Funding projects and programs that embrace this form of learning are an indirect approach to the Convergence Education Foundation's primary mission: to promote careers in science and engineering to students in the Michigan, Indiana and Ohio area. The foundation is funded by profits from the biannual Convergence conference that brings together leaders in the transportation electronics industry (think GPS, heating and sound systems in cars).

"The Convergence board of directors is very concerned about the large number of engineering jobs that continue to go overseas because it seems as though [the number of] students going into those types of careers is on the decline in this country," Klimek says. "What we're trying to do is structure the learning environment so opportunities for the learner to apply or employ adaptive decision making are present. ... The traditional teaching model where the teacher is in full control of what's going on is an inhibitor of students taking on science and engineering."

The foundation currently funds about 30 projects and hands out about $250,000 in grants annually.

All Grants, All the Time

The substantial Convergence grant is just one of many that Macomb Director Elsie Ritzenhein and her teaching staff have applied for and received in their quest to create an optimal learning environment that "increases students' opportunities for advanced work in mathematics, the sciences and engineering, and for some, the arts," Ritzenhein says. "Basically, any software, computers, cameras, tripods or additional equipment over and above the classroom list ... have been purchased through grants. We have no funds in-district to provide additional equipment for the school."

The five-year-old, 200-student school in rural Armada is a magnet program that attracts students from six local districts for three hours each day for honors level math, science and technology classes. The initial set up budget of the school, along with grants from the Armada Education Foundation, Electronic Data Systems, and others have allowed Ritzenhein and her staff to acquire ELMO Visual Presenters ($1,800 each), InFocus projectors ($1,500 each), wall screens and smart boards ($1,300 each), which students have access to in science, computer science, calculus and other classes.

"I use all of the above on a daily basis to teach calculus as well as computer science," says teacher Rene' Carlson. "This type of dynamic tool allows students to project, analyzing such questions as, 'What would happen if.' The models that can be constructed using technology as a tool really help foster problem solving."

The inquiry-based approach to teaching math and science has had some measurable results at Macomb, according to its staff. Forty-four students graduated from the academy last year, and all 44 are currently enrolled in universities, says Shull. "They haven't been there long enough for us to track their degrees, but we've seen a dramatic shift toward math and science, as far as the preliminary degrees they'd like to study."

Call it brain-based learning, or an inquiry-based approach. Either way, Klimek and Ritzenhein agree that these types of results can happen anywhere given a teaching staff that has the mindset and tools to adopt the methodology.

"We believe at [Macomb] that this type of learning is at the center of how the brain prefers to function and learns best," Carlson says. "We also believe that it is appropriate and essential for all learners, not simply those in advanced programs. This approach could, and should, be replicated in other schools."

Playing in the Park

Replicating this learning environment doesn't require a $60,000 investment like the Peak Motus grant at Macomb Academy of Arts and Sciences. In fact, Klimek and Convergence have funded projects that use Global Positioning System devices or handheld personal digital assistants for less than $10,000.

"The question becomes, 'What technology might we put in place to trigger their quest for information, to grease the skids?' " Klimek says.

In the Flint, Mich., Convergence funded a "School Within a Park" project at Bunche Community School with an $11,000 grant. Using equipment such as digital still cameras, digital video cameras, multimedia projectors, digital drawing pads and wireless mini-cams, students in the 400-student elementary school have collected data to create field guides to the park that's adjacent to their school, and analyzed soil and water samples. They also created plans to landscape and upgrade the park.

"When kids get highly engaged in learning, they show up, they don't goof off," Klimek says. "A lot of other problems that end up being splinters in your finger go away because the kids are highly engaged in learning."

Rebecca Sausner is a contributing editor.