Texas teacher makes physics her fulcrum

Hands-on techniques and enthusiasm leverage student interest

To put learning in motion, physics teacher Peggy Schweiger puts students in motion. Schweiger’s Klein Oak High (Spring, Texas) students design fettuccine bridges, pipe insulation roller coasters, and straw towers. They wire dollhouses with three kinds of circuits and build cardboard boats to row in a regatta.

Near Schweiger’s desk, hanging from the ceiling, is an 18-pound bowling ball on which a teddy bear named Newton rests. As a pendulum, the bowling ball is a dramatic lesson in energy conservation to her students and a lesson in trust for the volunteer who stands nearby. Schweiger pulls the bowling ball to a position near the student’s nose and let’s go to show that, on its return, the ball can’t hit the stationary volunteer in the nose, because it never gains more energy than it had at the start.

“I don’t have one of those classes where you walk by and kids are sitting there working with a book. This atmosphere really represents my personality,” says Schweiger, a member of All-USA Teacher Team, selected earlier this year as representatives of the nation’s outstanding teachers.

Schweiger’s classroom is full of activity and fun, but students know going in they’ll have to work hard. Last year, even a student who flunked one grading period went on to earn a 4 out of 5 on the Advanced Placement physics test. Just memorizing the formula won’t cut it here, where even the word “formula” is a no-no.

“They’re not formulas but definitions. Math is the language they use to define concepts,” Schweiger says. “There are so many levels of learning. I don’t expect them to learn at a low level.”

To get students working at a high level, Schweiger gives a “learning style” inventory on the first day of class. From these tests, she constructs lab groups that contain one member from each of the three learning styles visual, auditory and kinesthetic in addition to those who possess qualities from a combination of styles.

Schweiger recalls being one of two young women in college science classes of more than 100. She makes sure never to have only one girl in a lab, finding that girls are more likely to participate if there are at least two.

Schweiger then presents the lab groups with a problem and has them come up with the “what,” “how” and “why” on their own. In her Vector Scavenger Hunt, students construct a map of vectors directed line segments and place a designated object at the finish for another group to find. In the Guilt Trip Lab, students calculate the energy contained in a certain food, as well as how high they would have to climb to do an equivalent amount of work.

There’s nothing by the book, and, in fact, Schweiger makes textbooks optional. Three years ago, she began putting her labs on computer disks to save paper and make everything accessible.

Schweiger doesn’t think of herself as a technology guru, but as a problem-solver. “I had a problem, and I had to come up with a solution,” she says. Like in Math problems. Having an electronic textbook may be more work upfront, but it’s a good solution in several ways, she says:

It makes data available to everyone. In the past three years, parents have recognized the value of being connected to the Internet, and now all of Schweiger’s students have access, she says. Students just log on to find the lab data and do the labs electronically, turning them in via e-mail.

It allows for more detailed assessment. Typed reports are quicker for Schweiger to grade. When students make common mistakes, Schweiger simply pastes their address onto an e-mail with a detailed correction.

It makes class time more efficient. Schweiger figures eliminating note-taking time gives her an extra 10 minutes out of a 55-minute period to fill with critical thinking activities.

It sharpens occupational skills. The students who take physics are ones who will be using technology throughout their lives, she says.

Schweiger finds physics everywhere, from the vectors on an Etch A Sketch to the forces that pitch a beginning driver’s car into a ditch. Two years ago, Schweiger took a spill in a parking lot so serious that she got a black eye, and she couldn’t wait to get back to explain the physics of her fall, recalls former student Alison Arnett, 19. “Her face was all black, and she didn’t even care!”

“I tell kids, ‘I live and breathe physics,’ ” Schweiger says.”If you’re going to have something bad happen to you, you might as well find the physics in it.”