Douglas Petrick
Douglas Petrick
Physics Teacher, Pittsburgh, PA

shutterstock_184331438.jpg“What in the world does this have to do with the current chapter?” That was the question I asked Tim, Jackie, Ron, and Alison mid-morning on a beautiful fall day back in 1993. We were all in our first Physics class at our rural High School nestled in the fringes of South Western Pennsylvania. We collectively huddled around a lab table with a few pieces of miscellaneous lab equipment, measuring devices, and a well-worn photocopy of a lab guide. The current chapter reading and homework assignment was solely focused on Newton’s Laws, one of the foundational elements of Mechanics. There was a major disconnect between the assumed learning target of the lab activity and the current Physics chapter in which we were entrenched. The faded old sheet had some words and data scribbled in the margins from well before the fall of the Berlin Wall. No one could decipher how this lab activity related to the topic of Newton’s Laws. No one could answer that question. No one dared ask the teacher. And even after finishing the activity and accompanying report, we still didn’t have answers to the question of the day.


And that set the tone for the rest of the year in room 203…labs were assigned inconsistently with no discernable tie-in to the reading, homework, or tests. Labs became something we each disliked…feared…loathed. With no connection to the content in question, labs seemed more like a nuisance than a way to reinforce current learning or discover a new concept through the scientific method. In hindsight, I am sure the instructor deemed the lab activities we completed for the 1993-1994 academic year to be of high importance. However, without a direct connection to the academic pacing of the course, it was impossible to discern that importance or relevance from the student’s perspective.


Fast forward to 2003 and I am in charge of my own Physics classroom at my current school. It’s my first year teaching, and I’m eager to show the students “all I know.” Lecture, lecture, lecture, and more lecture.   Then throw in maybe one student work day every six to ten days for good measure. Yeah! That’s the ticket….yuck. Looking back, it would have been the perfect opportunity to right the wrong did unto Tim, Jackie, Ron, Allison, and I ten years earlier. This would be the perfect opportunity for me to demonstrate importance and relevance of labs in the context of my class. Yet, I still viewed labs as a…drumroll please…nuisance. I’m cringing as I write that word.


In year one (now I am in year fifteen), I viewed lab activities the same way I felt about them as a student in 1993. Labs were cumbersome, time-consuming exercises that couldn’t possibly have a tie-in to the current content. Labs didn’t need to have relevance to the current chapter or any association to the reading and assessment in question. These laboratory obstacles got in the way of real learning…my lectures?


Ugh! What a difference fifteen years makes. That’s a terrible way to think, especially as an educator in the sciences. I am ashamed that it took me such a long time to comprehend that labs can work with the course and not in contrast to the course. Labs can have real relevance to course objectives and can drive the pacing and format of the course if done with intention. Previously, I assumed labs should be a one-off, twenty minute exercise to kill time in between lectures. I erroneously viewed a lab report as a fill-in-the-blank packet with one word answers or a few key phrases to demonstrate learning. A quick turn-in report for students to complete during the lab operated as a checklist that was easy for me to grade and afforded me a clear way to distinguish right from wrong in their findings. But this is all operating under the assumption that I deemed interrupting the pace of my lectures. In my beginning years as an educator I subscribed to the model of a primarily teacher-centered environment, setting the pace of random topics with no overarching theme for the academic year.


About ten years after my first year teaching, fast-forward to October 2013, I had the opportunity to attend an AP Physics workshop. We’ve all been to training before, and I firmly believe that sitting in the room with the facilitator- Mrs. Connie Wells- was a pivotal moment in my attitude towards labs. This was truly an "ah-ha" moment for me an as educator. Ms. Wells was articulate, knowledgeable, dynamic…but also made lab demos the focus of her workshop. It was awesome, she would do a demo and then work with us in the room to show us how the lesson and the chapter, can be structured AROUND the lab! The lab could be the driving force in the course! There could be some connection to these hands-on activities and the current course topics!  I was gobsmacked to see Connie demonstrate relevance and connection in one fell swoop.


This was the origin of creating my signature classroom sound. We all know that delivery of content is critical to processing of content. Ms. Wells from Kansas’s performance at the workshop had inspired me to evolve beyond my preconceived notions of what a lab activity could be to a student.


When did you have a educational ah-ha moment that sparked a new direction in your teaching? I’d love to hear about it. Share your turning point in the comments section in the space below and I will be sure to reply.


This post is part one of a three part series designed to help you find your signature classroom sound. The next installment, part two of the series, will provide three of the six steps to help you find your signature sound. In the finale, you’ll learn the remaining three steps to begin your journey.


Image Credit: Nomad_Soul/Shutterstock