The Physics Factbook is an encyclopedia of scientific essays written by high school students that can be used by anybody. It is an exercise in library research methods in which students are sent out in search of a measurement with the intent of having them find more than just a number with a unit. It is an ongoing project with no foreseeable end date or limits.
These are the basic steps involved in making this project work.
- I started by compiling a list of measurements that I update continuously on an irregular basis. Whenever I get an idea for a measurement, I add it to the list. I deliberately choose areas that are appropriate for my level of students, that I am interested in, and for which there will be no encyclopedia entry. I then tend to get essays that make some sense, that I can read with a degree of interest, and that are not copied verbatim.
- The measurements in the list are then assigned to the students in an arbitrary manner; usually three per student. Although I believe all of the measurements are reasonable, some turn out to be too difficult. Since there is no way of knowing this beforehand, the students are always given options.
- The students are then forced to look for their measurement in a variety of resources to encourage some degree of diversity. I also insist that they photocopy or otherwise print-out their results so that I can read them and so that I don't have to take their word for it when they throw a fact my way. My resource list includes …
- Textbook: We use textbooks every day in school. Are these works written by authorities or just authors? Are their numbers reasonable or did they just pull their facts out of thin air?
- Reference: The Physics Factbook is supposed to be an encyclopedia of scientific essays. What better way to start than by referring to a real encyclopedia. How does what it says compare to what others say?
- Technical: What do the experts have to say on the matter? What do serious professionals need to know about this topic? Get out of the children's section and get into a real library.
- Old: What used to be said about this topic? Has the way in which we approach this subject changed any in the last eighteen years (the age of my oldest students)? Maybe things really haven't changed? Sometimes old resources get to the point quicker or explain things more simply. Sometimes they are completely wrong. Students automatically assume that anything old is outdated. Well, is it?
- Other: Sometimes, there are resources that just can't be categorized or maybe one type of resource is particularly abundant. Since there is no definitive answer, maybe there are no definitive resources.
- The students are then given two weeks to a month to research their assigned measurements and synthesize their findings about it. I then read and comment on their work, summarizing the good and bad points (in a face-to-face manner if possible). Students are required to bring hardcopies of their resources (printouts or photocopies) for verification.
- Not every student will produce an accurate, articulate synthesis of their research on the first try. Many times they will say something obviously wrong as they think there must be an answer. Sometimes, they have no idea what they are doing. I always provide ample opportunity for them to revise, update, and amend their essays. Final drafts are mostly the student's original words. (I only have enough time to fix the obvious mistakes.)
Completed essays are then transformed into webpages. The idea behind using the World Wide Web is that electronic media are much more fluid, universal, and economical than hardcopy media.
- A website can be upgraded incrementally throughout a semester. I can focus attention on it as time becomes available. As student essays reach fruition, they can be added to the master list and are ready for use at that instant. A school newspaper or magazine has an inflexible publisher's deadline. Any submissions that miss that deadline are essentially toast. The only real deadline is the end of an academic year (or the day when I finally say "Enough already!").
- The World Wide Web is world-wide. There are billions of potential readers out there. After a period, this project will resemble a real encyclopedia. (It might already have reached this state.) That people around the world are already starting to use it this way can be seen from growing numbers of links to this site. Participating students will be able to share their entries with family, friends, and coworkers across the globe. They might also be motivated into doing a better job than they would normally.
- Websites are cheap; that is, they can be cheap. Low-profile websites intended for a select group of readers are easy to come by; in fact, they're often free. School newspapers are by comparison ridiculously expensive, costing hundreds of dollars per edition, and can only reach a limited audience (probably no more than the students and faculty of the school). In dollars per potential readers, there's no comparison. Websites rule!
There are drawbacks, of course.
- Adequate computer facilities are hard to come by. Most schools concentrate their computers in laboratory-style rooms that must be shared by the entire school body. Scheduling adequate time for several full classes to use such facilities is next to impossible. In addition, nearly every subject teacher seems to need access to such labs at the same time -- the end of the school year. This wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the second drawback…
- Students are woefully ignorant of technology. Even students with access to computers at home don't seem to know how to use them or what they're capable of. Once you find time to take a class to the computer lab, you waste most of your time holding their hands, telling them how to use the machines and what to do when the unexpected happens (which, of course, it always does).
Unfortunately, the solution to these problems is simple. Money! Money for facilities, money for maintenance, and money for training.
Is this an easy project? Of course not. Is it hard? Well … The Physics Factbook is certainly nothing like a ten-minute quiz, but when implemented properly, it is no more troublesome than any other piece of authentic assessment. The current trend in educational reform is away from breadth of content and towards depth of experience. The aim of a year's education in every subject is less towards the memorization of piles of discrete facts and more towards the mastery of a limited set of broad performance goals. In this new millennium, it will be more important for students to be able to "explain results concisely and precisely to others" than it will be for them to "determine the net force on a 1,000 kg car accelerating at 3.0 m/s2."
Glenn Elert has taught physics and science research at Midwood High School at Brooklyn College since 1992. Prior to that, he taught physics and mathematics at a rural secondary school in the West African nation of Sierra Leone. The Physics Factbook is a part of his ongoing effort to incorporate technology into the classroom.