Exploring Physical Phenomena: What happens when light from the Sun shines on the Earth?

This textbook is intended for use in laboratory-centered physics courses for prospective and practicing elementary and middle school teachers. By exploring physical phenomena in class, participants learn science in ways in which they are expected to teach science. The emphasis is upon questioning, predicting, exploring, observing, discussing, reading, and writing about what one thinks and why.

This textbook also is appropriate for use in general science courses that explore some of the physical phenomena underlying global climate change. In addition, organizations such as museums, youth groups, or senior citizen programs may find one or more units a feasible framework for offering extended science learning experiences to the public during workshops and/or special events. Some of the activities also could form the basis for on-going exhibits.

The text assumes that the participants will be working at tables in small groups rather than sitting in rows listening to lectures. However, the course has been adapted for remote learning. Most of the equipment involves everyday materials available in homes, schools, and offices. Regular bulb thermometers can be substituted for the digital temperature probes described in the text. Participants can use a cell phone app to measure reflectivity if they do not have light sensors.  Those without access to motion detectors can use the graphs provided in the text to learn about the phenomena explored with these devices.

The level of mathematics required assumes proficiency in mathematics taught in K-8 classrooms. Also assumed is the willingness to strengthen some high school mathematics skills as needed. These include using the geometry of similar triangles, interpreting the heights and slopes of line graphs, and solving linear algebraic equations.

A. Unit Structure

Each unit follows the same structure:

  • Identifying resources participants bring to the study of a topic from their prior experiences.
  • Developing central ideas based on evidence from exploring physical phenomena with everyday equipment and materials.
  • Using these central ideas to explain intriguing physical phenomena.
  • Developing mathematical representations of the phenomena.
  • Using these mathematical representations to estimate a quantity of interest.
  • Making connections to educational policy and the US Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013).

By central ideas, we mean understandings about physical phenomena that students develop while making sense of their observations. These ideas emerge from the students’ discussions with one another as well as with the instructor. These central ideas also are powerful ideas because they form conceptual models useful in describing and explaining the phenomena explored. The units also develop expertise in generating and interpreting multiple representations of phenomena such as sketches, geometric figures, line graphs, and algebraic equations.

The theme for the course is: What happens when light from the Sun shines on the Earth? The first unit focuses on the nature of light phenomena. Students explore questions such as how light travels from a source, what affects the size and shape of shadows, how pinhole cameras work, how light reflects from both smooth and rough surfaces, and what happens when light shines through materials such as water and prisms? Students develop central ideas based on evidence from exploring these phenomena and use these understandings to think about what causes rainbows.

When light from the Sun shines on the Earth, things often get hot, so the second unit explores the nature of thermal phenomena. Why, for example, do some things feel hot or cold, how is energy conserved when mixing hot and cold water, and what happens when ice melts, liquid water warms, and then boils?

The third unit considers the influence of light and thermal phenomena on the water cycle and local weather. Students develop central ideas about forms of energy transfer such as radiation, reflection, absorption, conduction, and convection. They also explore properties of materials such as thermal conductivity and specific heat. They then use these ideas to explain weather phenomena. In particular, students develop explanations for why, after a sunny day at the beach, the sand is hot, water cool, and cloudy skies often occur along with sea breezes in the afternoon.

The fourth unit considers the influence of light and thermal phenomena on global climate (van Zee, Roberts, & Grobart, 2016). Questions include what happens to energy from the sun as it gets reflected or absorbed by the oceans, land forms, and atmosphere? What is the greenhouse effect and how does it modulate global temperatures? Students review websites presenting climate change indicators in the US, social issues, military issues, and ways to take action. They also review websites presenting local, state, national, and international efforts to understand and address concerns about changes in the global climate. As part of this unit, the students also explore motion to think about how to interpret graphical representations of changing phenomena– where something is, its position or current value; how that position or value is changing, its speed or rate of change; and how its speed is changing, its acceleration, where the ‘it’ may be a car speeding up but also could be the mass of melting glaciers all over the Earth.

The fifth unit extends throughout the course. On-going observations of the Sun and the Moon provide evidence for thinking about why day and night occur, why the Moon seems to have different shapes at different times, and why many places on the Earth experience different seasons at different times of year. Excerpts from writings by Galileo, Newton, and other scientists provide insights into the history of thoughts about the Earth’s place in the Universe. Explorations throughout the course also provide contexts for reflecting upon the nature of science as well as upon the nature of science learning and teaching.

Each unit ends by making connections to educational policy, such as recommendations articulated in the US Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013). In particular, students reflect upon ways in which their explorations and developing understandings exemplify the science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas presented in this document.

B. Class Sessions

This textbook can support classroom-based, hybrid, and online courses. Our course meets twice a week for 2.5 hours each session for ten weeks. The supplementary materials may be used to extend instruction for a semester. Class sessions include documenting initial knowledge, exploring phenomena, recording progress during explorations, discussing interpretations, writing to solidify understandings, and closing by reflecting upon what learned and what one is still wondering.

1. Identifying Student Resources

Each unit begins with a diagnostic question to which students respond in order to document what they already know about some aspect of the phenomena they will be exploring. Some diagnostic questions require drawing and/or writing responses individually. Others involve small group conversations and brief presentations to the whole group. Responses to these diagnostic questions are not graded.

Diagnostic questions alert students to the context of upcoming explorations; they alert the instructor to prevalent ideas on which the students can build as well as to those that may need refining. Many initial ideas are reasonable within everyday circumstances rather than misconceptions that need to be corrected. The notion that a force is necessary to keep something moving, for example, is reasonable when thinking about everyday experiences in pushing objects along rough surfaces. Refining that notion involves considering the effect of different surfaces on the force needed; less force is needed to keep something moving at the same speed on smooth surfaces such as ice. If no friction with the surface and no air resistance occurs, no force is needed to keep something moving at the same speed in the same direction. Recognizing such conditions of applicability is an important aspect of learning physics. Instead of memorizing Newton’s first law with a shrug as a counterintuitive abstraction impossible to believe, students can understand it as a sensible statement, that a moving object stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

Responding to diagnostic questions can activate resources from prior experiences that students can build upon in thinking about and exploring physical phenomena. The focus on reflecting upon one’s own learning in this course also activates epistemological resources, from prior experiences that students can build upon in thinking about and exploring learning phenomena (Hammer & Elby, 2003). Students respond to some diagnostic questions again later in the course, compare their initial and current responses, and write about their learning processes with evidence drawn from their initial and current responses to support their claims. In an on-campus course, such diagnostic questions have been initially asked on handouts that students completed in class. The instructor collected, viewed, and stored the responses until returning them after students had completed handouts documenting their current understandings near the end of the course. In the remote learning setting, the students responded in class to ungraded surveys, both initially and near the end of the course. Both responses were accessed and stored electronically.

2. Exploring Phenomena

The units focus on doing and interpreting explorations of phenomena in class. Most equipment can be found in everyday settings such as kitchens, playrooms, and offices. Some activities and assignments assume students have access to a computer and to the Internet both inside and outside of class. Suggestions in the text reflect our setting of a classroom with tables at which small groups work together. Online students could collaborate in small groups via their course’s electronic network or in breakout rooms. It would be best for interested individuals not enrolled in a course to explore phenomena with friends and/or family members rather than alone, but access to a variety of perspectives will be possible through reading the example student findings and interpretations.

The text presents the explorations as numbered Questions with bulleted statements that suggest what to do. These directions are not intended, however, to be handed out in class. The expectation instead is that the instructor will pose these general questions, provide the small groups with equipment needed, and offer some initial oral suggestions that the students see what they can find out by using the equipment to explore the phenomena. This open-ended format encourages active student engagement in designing explorations and interpreting findings.

This instructional approach assumes active engagement by the instructor and assistants as well. We recommend arranging for one or more graduates of the course to serve as learning assistants (LAs) for independent study credit or for stipends if department funding is available. Physics majors interested in teaching careers also have served as LAs for us as well as graduate students as teaching assistants (TAs). The instructor and such assistants circulate among the tables, listen in to what group members are saying, observe what the students are drawing or doing, and then ask a question or offer a comment only as needed to help a group to make progress. This process proved difficult in the remote learning setting as one cannot monitor what is happening across multiple groups while assisting one group. It is important to listen first to what is happening when joining a breakout room before intervening, or not.

A staff member may simply ask a small group “what are you doing?” to initiate a conversation that encourages students to clarify for themselves whether what they are doing and thinking makes sense in moving toward whatever is the goal. The staff member may follow up with “why are you doing that?” and/or “how is that helping you?” Such gentle guidance is essential for nudging groups along while also providing opportunities for students to design and undertake inquiries in ways that interest them. Alan Schoenfeld (1992) suggests asking these questions to help students avoid going down unproductive paths in solving mathematics problems. Such questions also can help students learn how to monitor their own progress eventually in designing, conducting, and interpreting explorations.

3. Recording Progress During Explorations

Keeping track of what one is doing and thinking is important. In our course, students use a template for a physics notebook page on which to record their notes during class. When students submit homework assignments, the instructor may ask them to submit these notebook pages as well, perhaps for a grade or just to get a sense of how students are doing. This textbook assumes students are using this physics notebook page but instructors may prefer to have other ways for students to document what they are doing and thinking in class.

The recommended physics notebook page is for students to use to keep track of what they are doing and thinking during explorations: here (docx) or here (pdf).

This physics notebook page template is shown with explanations of the various sections: here (docx) or here (pdf). Sections on the front of the physics notebook page include the Topic of the exploration, the students’ initial ideas and plans Before starting their exploration, their observations and thoughts about what they are observing During their exploration, and relevant Vocabulary.

Example: Front of Physics Notebook Page

Topic: State the focus of the exploration: what question(s) are you asking?

Before column. Before starting your exploration, think about and discuss with your group members what you know already about this topic, how you plan to conduct the exploration and what you think you might find out. Record these initial ideas in the “Before” column. Draw pictures to represent your plans and predictions.

During column. During your exploration, record what is happening, what you observe, and what you are thinking about what you are observing. Include sketches of equipment and observations. Confirm or disconfirm predictions and describe some possible next steps.

Vocabulary. Note any words that are new and their definitions.

Sections on the back page refer to what happens after collecting data and recording these findings. These sections include Central Ideas that emerge from interpreting findings, the Relevant Evidence on which you are basing those ideas, the Rationale that justifies how the evidence supports the claims being made with these ideas, a Reflection about the exploration, and What you are Still Wondering.

Example: Back of Physics Notebook Page

After: Central Ideas. After your exploration, record any central ideas that have emerged from your observations and discussions.

After: Relevant Evidence. Also note the evidence on which you have based these ideas.

After: Rationale. State explicitly how the evidence is relevant and supports the claims you are making in stating the central ideas. Also explain why this result is important.

After: Reflection. Then write a reflection about whatever you want to remember about this experience – perhaps how what you learned connects to other experiences, how you learned what you learned, and what implications these findings might suggest for the next exploration or for teaching this topic in your own classroom.

After: Wonderings. In addition, briefly state what you are still wondering in this context.

Our students make copies of the template of the two-sided physics notebook page, punch holes in the copies, and use a 3-ring binder in which they store the notebook pages and handouts. They bring copies of the physics notebook page to class to use during explorations.  Instructors may prefer to recommend other processes for documenting explorations in this course.

Entries on the physics notebook pages in class serve as notes for writing a coherent summary of questions, initial thoughts and plans, findings, and interpretations as a laboratory report after class. For the most effective learning experience, students complete explorations and summaries before reading the example student findings and interpretations included in the online text.

Adam Devitt designed these physics notebook pages when he was assisting in this course. He was a special education elementary school teacher enrolled in a graduate program in science education. He based his design of these physics notebook pages by analogy with “before, during, and after” reading strategies that enhance literacy learning (Devitt, 2010; Winegrad & Devitt, 2009). The pages have been slightly modified with the addition of a Rationale section and revision of some of the suggestions in the template with explanations of the various sections.

4. Discussing Interpretations of Findings

Initial discussions interpreting findings occur in the small groups. It is important, however, for the whole group to come to consensus on what the observations were and what these findings mean. There should be a clear articulation of one or more central ideas that emerge from the exploration, the evidence upon which the claims are based, and the rationale that discusses how the evidence supports the claims and why this result is important. This coming to a shared understanding about what happened and what one can infer from the findings can occur through small group presentations and/or instructor facilitated whole-group discussions.

Small group presentations maximize the involvement of individual students in developing interpretations and ways to present these interpretations to the whole group. Students need to plan and rehearse how every member of the group will contribute to what they are reporting about their findings and interpretations. If the small groups have been exploring the same phenomena in different ways, suggesting a different focus to different groups will help multiple small group presentations remain interesting and informative.

As small groups are working on their presentations, the instructor and assistants visit each group briefly to look at what the students are putting on a poster (large whiteboard) and to listen to what each student is planning to say. This way the instructor and assistants can help shape what the students choose to present and address any issues that need refining. The group members should include the process of resolving any such issues as part of their presentation.

Facilitating whole group discussions involves listening to what students say, welcoming contributions from a variety of individuals, and encouraging student/student interactions. One way to encourage student questioning is to paraphrase what someone just said and wait before saying anything more. Listening to statements puts students into a conversationally appropriate position to ask a question. If the instructor waits without responding to that question, another student may venture an answer, which may prompt yet another student to risk offering a contribution to the thinking (van Zee & Minstrell, 1997). Although time-consuming, such vigorous student/student discussions can create a meaningful context for students to make sense of their findings before leaving class.

It is important for the instructor to resist the temptation to present a quick coherent summary of what was to be learned. If this occurs frequently, students tend to wait for it and not engage as well in making their own sense of what has happened. The extent to which the instructor feels compelled to ‘tell answers’ likely will vary, however, with the time to the end of class, the importance of the current topic to later topics, the apparent engagement of the students, and everyone’s patience. We believe that the more group members can generate their own ideas, resolve puzzles themselves, and develop coherent arguments supporting their claims, the more they will learn.

Fostering small group presentations and/or whole group conversation near the close of the students’ explorations is an important step in helping to clarify and refine understandings. Such presentations and conversations also will help students develop the skills in argumentation advocated in the US Next Generation Science Standards (Lead States, 2013). The intent is for the students to be the ones who articulate emergent central ideas, state relevant evidence, and provide rationales to explain how that evidence supports the claims being made and why the result is important.

Similar interpretative processes occur during subsequent sessions when students use the central ideas developed previously in order to explain intriguing phenomena that they have just explored, to develop mathematical representations of the phenomena, and/or to use these mathematical representations to estimate a quantity of interest.

5. Writing to solidify understandings

Scheduling time near the end of class for students to write about what they have understood helps solidify understandings about the physical phenomena explored and the learning that occurred during the session. Sometimes this can be an open-ended opportunity to reflect on what seems most interesting and/or important to the students but often the instructor may choose to provide some structure such as a table to complete, a drawing to be made, or a prompt for a summary statement. Many of the optional handouts provide such structure. These efforts do not need to be collected nor graded. They are intended to be the beginnings for students to write a coherent summary prepared at home.

6. Reflecting Upon What Learned and What Still Wondering

At the close of class, members of each small group reflect together upon what they have just learned in class, write a brief statement of what was most interesting to them, and articulate a question that expresses what they are still wondering. They record these thoughts briefly on exit tickets that the small groups turn in as they leave class. In the remote learning setting, the students responded individually to ungraded surveys with the essay questions What was most interesting about what you learned today and What are you still wondering. This provided immediate feedback to the instructor, which was very helpful in becoming aware of issues that students might otherwise have not expressed.

If a member of each group reports orally to the whole group, students also hear what others have learned and are still wondering. These brief reflections often provide insights into what was puzzling and needs clarification, next steps that might not otherwise have been contemplated, and practical matters that need attention. Sometimes the students’ questions get the whole class thinking about the next exploration! Although time-consuming, such oral as well as written reflections can foster a sense of community and enrich the wonderings as well as the understandings with which students leave the classroom.

This practice was inherited from Dr. John Layman, a physics professor who taught a similar physics course at the University of Maryland College Park. One of his graduates strongly recommended continuing this closing ceremony as she had found it very meaningful. Apparently some of our graduates feel this way as well as several have reported choosing to continue this practice with their own elementary students.

The instructor can indicate sections of the online text that are relevant to the explorations undertaken during that class and/or to some of the questions just raised. Many of the students’ questions will not be addressed in this course, however. It is important to acknowledge such questions as an aspect of doing science. Scientists frequently generate intriguing questions that they cannot immediately explore within their current research. Generating questions about whatever one is doing and thinking can become a helpful practice no matter in what field of endeavor one is engaged.

After class, we have posted the relevant sections of the text online. Earlier access to the text may inhibit student learning. We believe that students will learn more, as well as build confidence and competence in doing science, if they use the online text as a means for confirming understandings that they have already developed themselves through their explorations and discussions in class.

C. Assignments

As is typical in physics courses, assignments include solving a variety of word problems related to the physical phenomena explored in class. The students also report their ongoing observations of the Sun and the Moon on a weekly basis. These form the evidence later in the term for developing explanatory models of day and night, the phases of the Moon, and the Earth’s seasons.

Assignments also emphasize integrating science and literacy learning, such as speaking clearly, listening closely, writing coherently, reading with comprehension, and creating and critiquing information provided through electronic media (van Zee et al., 2013a,b). As prospective teachers, our students create a children’s book based on their explorations in class. They also make connections in each unit to the US Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013) adopted by many departments of education.

Suggested assignments also include engaging friends and family members in learning about the phenomena that students just explored in class (Crowl et al., 2013). Such assignments can enhance the students’ confidence in teaching science as well as contribute to educating citizens about the nature of science as well as about the evidence underlying concerns about climate change. The students write reflections about what happened, what the learner(s) asked, said, did, and found, and what they learned about science learning and teaching. By posting these reflections on an electronic discussion board, they can learn from one another’s experiences.

The students also reflect upon their learning processes, how they are making sense out of what they are learning each week, what aspects they want to remember, and what questions they still have. These reflections also are helpful for alerting the instructor to issues that need to be addressed and for suggesting ways to connect topics in the course to the students’ interests.

Readings include articles by teachers reflecting upon exploring similar phenomena with their students as well as internet resources relevant to phenomena explored in class. The suggested before, during, and after reading strategies (Winegard and Devitt, 2009) are shown here (docx) or here (pdf).

The students access and critique internet resources relevant to university, state, national, and international efforts to address issues related to global climate change. They also explore websites presenting climate change indicators, social issues, military issues, and ways to take action.  The expectation is that students will read enough to become aware of such resources and to find something interesting to report; they are not expected to read these materials in depth.

Students submit printed homework and reading assignments in class; some instructors prefer submission through an electronic platform (Canvas). Midterm and final examinations complete these formal assessments of students’ learning. Currently the midterm is a ‘sit down’ affair during a class session where students can use their notebooks (but not their cell phones) for up to the full 2.5 hours of class if needed. The final currently involves preparing at home a file with responses to the questions and submitting this file online. Some of the questions include comparing students’ responses on the same diagnostic questions early and late in the course and discussing how they learned what they learned based on the evidence provided by these responses.

D. Equipment

This course is laboratory-centered, which means every session involves some kind of exploration. Most of the equipment involves everyday materials found in homes, schools, and offices such as toilet and paper towel rolls, aluminum foil, wax paper, cardboard, flashlights, pots, hot plates, jars, plastic containers, etc. The Instructor’s Guide includes a detailed list, or you can find it here. Access to the internet is assumed inside and outside of class. Usually at least one member of a small group has a computer laptop that can be brought to class. We use three digital probes:

  1. A light probe (TI light intensity probe,, $16 with Go-Link interface ($69). (This is no longer in production but may still be available via a web search.)  Many students, however, have cell phones that include a light meter application so a web search for current light meter apps would be helpful, particularly for remote learning courses.)
  2. A temperature probe (Go!Temp,, $39).
  3. A motion detector ( Go!Motion,, $129).

Each group uses 1 light probe, 2 temperature probes, and 1 motion detector. If necessary, the instructor can use only one motion detector with the entire class. Regular bulb and tube thermometers can be used rather than the digital temperature probes. The students can use a cell phone app for measuring reflectivity rather than a light probe. The text also includes screen shots of the relevant graphs so that students without access to digital equipment can still think about the topics addressed. They will miss, however, the wonderful learning experiences these devises can provide.

E. Connection to US Next Generation Science Standards

This course addresses aspects of the following disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and science and engineering practices suggested in the Next Generation Science Standards (Lead States, 2013)

Relevant Disciplinary Core Ideas Addressed

Physical Sciences:
PS1A:Structure and Properties of Matter
PS2A:Forces and Motion
PS3A:Definitions of Energy
PS3B:Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer
PS4A:Wave Properties
PS4B:Electromagnetic Radiation

Earth and Space Sciences:
ESS1B: Earth and the Solar System
ESS2D: Weather and Climate
ESS3D: Global Climate Change

Crosscutting Concepts

Cause and effect
Scale proportion and quantity
Systems and systems models
Energy and matter, flows, cycles and conservation
Structure and function
Stability and change

Science and Engineering Practices

Asking questions and defining problems.
Developing and using models.
Planning and carrying out investigations.
Analyzing and interpreting data.
Using mathematics and computational thinking.
Constructing explanations and designing solutions.
Engaging in argument from evidence.
Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information.

At the close of each unit, the students write reflections about which of these dimensions of science learning they have been experiencing and how they might engage their own students in similar ways.


We deeply appreciate the encouragement of Professor Henri Jansen in the design and implementation of this course when he was chair of the Physics Department. Professor Kenneth Winegrad, a literacy faculty member in the College of Education, contributed many helpful insights to our endeavors to integrate science and literacy learning in this course. This open-source textbook includes work supported earlier by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0633752-DUE, Integrating Physics and Literacy Learning in a Physics Course for Elementary and Middle School Teachers. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the grantees and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Two papers describe this effort to integrate science and literacy learning in a physics course for prospective teachers (van Zee, Jansen, Winegrad, Crowl, & Devitt (2013a, b). Another describes ways we later included global climate change issues (van Zee, Roberts, & Grobart, 2016). Professor Winegrad and Adam Devitt, a graduate assistant who was an experienced elementary special education teacher, developed a handout describing before, during, and after reading strategies for use in the course (Winegrad & Devitt, 2009). Adam also created the before, during, and after design of the Physics Notebook Page in analogy to those reading strategies. In addition, he documented literacy activities he initiated in the course (Devitt, 2010). Michele Crowl, a graduate assistant who was a former science museum educator, invented the friends and family assignments (Crowl, Devitt, Jansen, van Zee, & Winegrad, 2013). Katie Kizer, an undergraduate peer instructor, created a website documenting the course at .

Many of the suggested readings were written by teachers participating in NSF No. MDR-9155726, Investigation of Questioning Processes during Conversations about Science, Emily H. van Zee, PI, University of California-Berkeley; NSF No. 9986846, Case Studies of Elementary Student Inquiry in Physical Science, David Hammer, PI; Emily van Zee, co-PI, University of Maryland College Park; and a series of small grants from the Spencer Foundation under the Practitioner Research program, including Fostering Teachers’ Inquiries into Science Learning, Emily H. van Zee, PI, University of Maryland, College Park. Participating teachers included Mary Bell (2006), Claire Bove (2007), Kathleen Hogan (2007), Christopher Horne (2007), Marletta Iwaysk (1997), Akiko Kurose (2000), Diantha Lay (2000), Jamie Mikeska (2006), Constance Nissley (2000), Jessica Phelan (2006), Deborah Roberts (1999, 2000, 2007), Patricia Roy (2006), Dorothy Simpson (1997), and Kathy Swire (2006).

With consent forms approved by the Oregon State University Institutional Review Board (IRB), we ask students for permission to video-record class sessions, to make copies of student writings and drawings, and to photograph artifacts such as large white boards that small groups create to present and discuss their findings. Students contributing their work to this open-source textbook in these and other ways include Nicole Acadio, Mackenzie Belden, Alexia Berg, Lauren Bickhaus, Rachael Brickson, Lindsay Carlton, Sierra Christianson, Erica Chelgren, Kirsten Clark, Nina Coleman, Natalia Cox, Maddison Cruz, Bridget Eby, Colleen Ellis, Kirby Erdman, Judith Ford, Nathalie Gaebe, Emma Grobart, Jorgan Hanson, Rebecca Huber, Justine Hynes, Tylyn Jones, Mikaela Kerr, Andrea Kenagy, Camryn Kimberly, Katie Kizer, Alison Latham-Ocampo, Emily Lemons, Jordan McCarty, Hannah Nealy, Paige Noonan, Natasha Ostertag-Hill, Andie Porta, Kortney Reddick, Zhanè Richardson, Shanna Roast, Sage Robertson, Kathryn Rodriggs, Erin Ross, Kaila Smith, Maggie Stewart, Joslyn Strickler, Danielle Taylor, Nathan Tran, Sarah Van Kessel, Courteney Vogt, Trinity Whitaker, and Stacey Zaback.

We have been very fortunate to have had excellent mentors and many opportunities to participate in and/or to learn about research and curriculum development projects while teaching and learning science with preschoolers, school children, undergraduates, graduate students, teachers, and the public, inside and outside of formal settings:

The first author, Emily van Zee, would like to thank Professor Gerald Holton for introducing her to the community of physicists who care about teaching when she worked for him as a research and editorial assistant during the early years of Project Physics (Holton, 2003; Rutherford, Holton, & Watson, 1971). She enjoyed learning not only about ways to engage students in exploring physical phenomena but also about historical, philosophical, and cultural aspects of the development of physics principles. The importance of providing access to such broader views underlies her inclusion of aspects of these perspectives in this Exploring Physical Phenomena open-source textbook.

Betty Roald, a talented elementary school teacher, welcomed the first author, as a stay-at-home Mom, to teach science to wiggly first grade students. The first author remembers sitting on the floor with the children around her while engaging them in explorations suggested in a book about how bodies work (Allison, 1976). Similar volunteer experiences with young children and older scouts in both formal and informal settings prompted her later support of a graduate assistant’s initiative in inventing the friends and family assignments, now a regular part of our course (Crowl et al., 2013). The first author learned about the Moon from Leslie DeWater, a talented fifth grade teacher as well as master teacher in the University of Washington’s physics programs for teachers.

The first author also would like to thank Professor Arnold Arons (1972, 1977) and Professor Lillian C. McDermott (1993, 2016) for changing the way she teaches. The first author joined the Physics 101-102, 103 staff at the University of Washington when it was the setting for the development of the Physics by Inquiry curriculum (McDermott, 1990; McDermott and the Physics Education Group, 1996; McDermott, Rosenquist, & van Zee, 1983). Earlier, as a new middle school science teacher, the first author had taught students in the way she had been taught, by telling them what she thought they should know. Here, however, she learned how to teach in a new way, by moving among small groups of students sitting at tables as they worked together exploring phenomena. She learned to listen closely to what the students were saying to one another, to intervene (or not) with a comment or question, and to answer a question with a question designed to help prompt the next step in thinking.

Petra Carrera, Rafael Escribano, Gabriel Florentino, Luanna Gomez, KimBerly Petitt, and Darrell Simms were particularly insightful about their learning processes as students and/or peer instructors in the Physics 101 series. The first author’s experiences in teaching these courses motivated the inquiry-based pedagogical approach as well as some of the light, thermal and astronomy activities that she adapted while designing and teaching this physics course for prospective teachers. Also relevant was the emphasis on documenting and interpreting student learning, such as ways students used multiple representations, particularly those involving motion graphs (McDermott, Rosenquist, & van Zee, 1987). In addition, the first author became aware here of the extensive science curricular resources developed earlier with NSF support for use with elementary and middle school students (National Academy of Science, 1996).

With expert guidance from Professor Lee Beach (1990), the first author undertook studies of cognition and metacognition, particularly in exploring ways people use information while making decisions (van Zee, Palunchowski, & Beach, 1992). She also began studies of the ethnography of communication with Professor Gerry Philipsen (1994) about ways in which people talk thoughtfully with one another; she was particularly interested in the role of questioning during such discussions. These studies contributed to her interest in and awareness of many aspects of discourse that affect how students think and learn.

The first author enjoyed collaborating with a high school physics teacher, Jim Minstrell, in documenting and interpreting how he used questioning to guide student thinking (van Zee & Minstrell, 1997a,b). Her post-doctoral research focused upon An Investigation of Questioning Processes during a Cognitive Approach to Physics Instruction with support from the James S. McDonnell Foundation. We found that he asked questions to help students make their meanings clear, to consider various points of view in a neutral manner, and to monitor the discussion and their own thinking. He had developed a computer program, Diagnoser, based on facets of student knowledge that he had identified through research in his own classroom (Minstrell, 1988, 1992; Minstrell & Hunt, 1990). The students could work through a series of questions to diagnose their current thinking; then they could take next steps that the Diagnoser suggested based upon their responses. The diagnostic questions that begin each unit in this Exploring Physical Phenomena open-source textbook are a similar effort to alert the students and the instructor to students’ initial ideas about a topic, both those useful for building deeper understandings as well as any needing refinement. The first author’s experiences here deeply influenced her adoption of a positive instructional perspective of helping students to expand their areas of competence rather than screening student responses for misconceptions that need to be corrected.

As an instructor in an innovative combined program for future teachers and future researchers at the University of California, Berkeley (Lowery, Schoenfeld, & White, 1990), the first author modeled video recording her own class sessions to gather data for doing research on one’s own teaching practices and students’ learning (van Zee, 2000). She enjoyed learning more about cognitive science along with her students, particularly through many conversations with Claire Bove, Ming Chiu, Miriam Gamoran, Sean Hutcherson, Lawrence Muilenburg, Marcelle Siegel, and Erica Street as well as with teaching colleagues Stan Fukunaga, Don Hubbard, and Dan Zimmerman. She learned about causal models from Professor Barbara White (1993) and about ways to use computers as learning partners from Professor Marcia Linn(1991). She also learned from Professor Andy diSessa (1993) about phenomenological primitives (p-prims), or pieces of knowledge that students may use in generating responses when asked physics questions. This perspective contrasts with interpreting students’ responses as revealing misconceptions firmly embedded in students’ brains, wrong ideas that need to be elicited, confronted, and changed. In addition, she learned from Professor Alan Schoenfeld (1992) about metacognitive processes that help students stay aware of what they are doing and why. These perspectives underlie this course’s emphasis on explorations to expand and refine the prospective teachers’ understandings of physical phenomena.

With expert mentoring from Professors John Layman, Randy McGinnis, and Jim Fey, the first author taught courses on methods of teaching science for prospective elementary and middle school teachers as a faculty member in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Maryland, College Park. She also appreciated the warm welcome by Professor Joe Redish to activities in the Department of Physics. She noticed a distinct difference in students who were graduates of Physics 115, a course that served as one of the development sites for the American Association of Physics Teachers’ Powerful Ideas in Physical Science curriculum (American Association of Physics Teachers, 1995; Ukens, Hein, Johnson, & Layman, 2004). Rather than being bewildered by her inquiry-based instructional approach, Physics 115 graduates understood what to do and seemed to enjoy doing it, modeling for their classmates learning science by working together asking their own questions and exploring phenomena without detailed step-by-step directions. The first author enjoyed observing the Physics 115 course occasionally. She chose to adapt some light and thermal activities from this resource.

Collaboration with Professor David Hammer and a group of practicing elementary and middle school teachers broadened the first author’s vision of what teaching science through inquiry can mean. Developed under NSF-9986846, Case Studies of Elementary Student Inquiry in Physical Science included engaging the teachers in learning physics during the summer as well as in documenting and interpreting their students’ science thinking during the academic year (Hammer & van Zee, 2006). The emphasis was on recognizing and refining epistemological resources as well as initial science understandings (Hammer, 2000; Hammer & Elby, 2003). In teaching the physics course for prospective elementary and middle school teachers and preparing this open-source textbook, the first author drew on many of these experiences in the context of exploring light phenomena (van Zee, Hammer, Bell, Roy, & Peter, 2006).

Participating in the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (Shulman, 2002) increased the first author’s proficiency in video recording her own instructional practices and in writing interpretations of her students’ thinking and learning. She also encouraged her students and graduates of her courses to document and interpret their own teaching practices and students’ thinking and learning (van Zee, Lay & Roberts, 2003). This emphasis on focused reflection, based on evidence collected in class, underlies the extensive use of students’ writing in preparation of this open source textbook.

The first author was invited to design this physics course for prospective elementary and middle school teachers after retiring from the University of Maryland and moving to Corvallis, Oregon. She deeply appreciates the welcome by Professors Larry Flick and Larry Enochs and the opportunity to collaborate with Rebekah Elliot, Nam Hwa Kang, and Janice Rosenberg in the Department of Science and Mathematics Education at Oregon State University. She learned a lot about teaching mathematics and using technology  during a series of collaborations with Professor Maggie Niess.

The first author would like to thank Professor Fred Goldberg for his thoughtful encouragement as she grew more confident in teaching physics in interactive ways. The process of developing explanations in Physics and Everyday Thinking (Goldberg, Robinson, & Otero, 2007; Goldberg, Otero, & Robinson, 2010; Goldberg, Price, Robinson, Boyd-Harlow, & McKean, 2012) influenced the first author’s design of assignments in this course. In starting to work on a physics problem, for example, students review the conceptual model they have developed for the relevant physical phenomenon before attending to the specific information provided. The Physics and Everyday Thinking curriculum’s explicit emphasis on learning about learning as well as learning about physics also influenced our attention to engaging students in developing pedagogical as well as physical science understandings as integral to class activities, homework assignments, and examinations.

The second author, Elizabeth Gire, also enjoyed talking with Professor Goldberg about interactive engagement strategies while he was teaching a course for prospective teachers with the Physics and Everyday Thinking curriculum. In addition, she was mentored by Charles De Leone in teaching an adaptation of CLASP (Collaborative Learning through Active Sense-Making in Physics), a course that supports students in building understanding by making observations, working in small groups to generate ideas, presenting those ideas to the rest of the class, and whole class discussion of those ideas (Potter, Webb, Paul, West, Bowen, Weiss, & De Leone, 2014). During that time, she studied how students’ success on physics problems correlated with their use of non-algebraic representations (graphs, diagrams, etc) to make sense of physical situations and to communicate their understanding (DeLeone and E. Gire, 2006). Since then, her teaching and research has focused both on how students engage in physics sensemaking and how they use different representations to make sense of physical systems (Gire, Nguyen, & Rebello, 2011; Gire & Price, 2015; Hahn, Emigh, Lenz, & Gire, 2017).

Now a physics faculty member at Oregon State University, the second author is the current instructor for our physics course for prospective teachers and has been enriching this effort to create the Exploring Physical Phenomena open-source textbook. Her research focuses upon ways in which to engage students in seeking coherence among different representations of physics knowledge. She and her colleagues are developing a set of hands-on, discovery-style, discussion-based classroom activities that use dry-erasable three-dimensional plastic surfaces to represent physical systems that depend on multiple variables (Gire, 2017; Gire, A. Wangberg & R. Wangberg, 2018).

The second author also is developing a physics course for majors that explicitly engages students in developing knowledge of sense-making strategies, metacognitive skills, and productive beliefs about the nature of doing physics as well as in increasing their awareness and appreciation of physics sense-making processes (Gire, Emigh, Hahn, and Lenz, 2018). Her explicit focus on such physics education research contributes to her positive pedagogical approach in meeting the needs of the prospective elementary and middle school teachers, many of whom seem to perceive themselves initially as reluctant science learners. She has introduced circle conversations, for example, in which the small groups gather to share their findings, sometimes through multiple iterations of thoughtful discussions, until they come to consensus on their interpretations of what they have observed.

Both authors have enjoyed collaborating with Professor Corinne Manogue in the physics department’s on-going research and curriculum development in the context of upper division courses for physics majors, Paradigms in Physics (Gire, Kustusch, & Manogue, 2012; Gire & Manogue, 2011; Manogue, Cerny, Gire, Mountcastle, Price, & van Zee, 2010; Manogue, Gire, & Roundy, 2013; Manogue & Krane, 2003; van Zee & Manogue, 2010, 2018). These courses are unusual in their organization of the physics content studied as well as in their use of interactive engagement strategies in class. Although the level of mathematics and conceptual content in the course for prospective teachers is different, the emphasis on encouraging students to enjoy learning with and from one another is similar. We both have grown in pedagogical as well as physics knowledge through our participation in the Paradigms in Physics program.

We are deeply grateful to the colleagues who have educated and encouraged us. We also have greatly appreciated the care and thoughtful assistance from Stefanie Buck, Dianna Fisher, Kenya Hazell, Baylee Bullock, Derek Ostrom, and Mark Lane of OSU Open Educational Resources. Our families also have been wonderfully supportive of this endeavor. However, any errors in these materials are our own. Please email us at and/or if you have suggestions for improving these materials.


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