January morning light floods the second-floor physics classroom through floor-to-ceiling windows in the Baker Science Building. Eight students (one has the flu) form a U-shape as they listen to faculty member John Chung review concepts of electric circuitry and instructions for the day’s lab.
Tasked with investigating various “prompts” around their circuitry unit, students spend the class period designing their own mini-experiments, collecting and analyzing data. Ultimately, they will make presentations to their classmates.
Groups of two or three students experiment with piles of wires, batteries and mini light bulbs as they build the different sorts of circuits Chung requests. He also asks them to demonstrate their ability to utilize a multimeter (a device that can measure voltage). As he circulates to question and assist, there’s another aspect of the class many of us may not associate with high school physics: laughter. While the work is challenging, the rapport Chung has established with these junior scientists reflects respect, intellectual curiosity and that too-rare lab ingredient: humor. Their mutual enjoyment is contagious.
Emma Manigat ’21 says, “Mr. Chung is one of my favorite teachers and we have so much fun in class every day. There is never a dull class because we always have some sort of fun lab or demo going on.”
Chung explains that his non-traditional methodology is intentional: “Our physics curriculum is rather experiential by design.” In the days when he was a physics student, “Lecture notes introduced concepts, practice problems on homework developed the skills, then labs were used to confirm the concepts that I already knew or had been using on practice problems.” Chung’s contemporary approach—hands-on, open-ended problem-solving through collaboration—is a big shift.
“What we do is almost backward from that: students often make observations in a collaborative lab setting that then necessitates me explaining the physics behind the scenes. The main benefit I’ve witnessed from all of this is that it gives a chance for kids to engage at a high level. I often feel like teaching this class is a lot of me answering, ‘Why did that just happen?’ or fielding questions that students have about how things work in the world.”
Throughout the course, students gain an understanding of the fundamental laws of physics, but also develop observation and data collection skills, justify theories, perform analyses and solve problems, both in groups and individually.
When students prompt Chung for explanations, he enthusiastically shares examples and gives clarification. But just as quickly, he also challenges them to formulate their own answers. When they express self-doubt, Chung questions them further and gives them the space to discover they actually know—and that’s when the light bulb comes on.