Learning in Physical Science

The SC 130 Physical Science curriculum is built around four course level student learning outcomes and fifteen specific student learning outcomes which serve four general education program learning outcomes. Student learning outcomes are prefaced by the phrase, "Students will be able to..." and followed by a measurable ability, knowledge set, or value. These course and specific outcomes form the core of the course outline.

General Education Program Learning Outcomes

1.1 Write a clear, well-organized paper using documentation and quantitative tools when appropriate.
3.2 Present and interpret numeric information in graphic forms.
3.4 Define and explain the concepts, principles, and theories of a field of science.
3.5 Perform experiments that gather scientific information and to utilize, interpret, and explain the results of experiments and field work in a field of science

Course and Specific Student Learning Outcomes
1. Demonstrate core scientific skills
1.1 Explore physical science systems using scientific methodologies
1.2 Generate mathematical models for physical science systems
1.3 Write up the results of experiments in a formal format using spreadsheet and word processing software

2. Perform experiments in mechanics
2.1 Determine the relationship between time and space for an object undergoing linear motion
2.2 Determine the relationship between time and space for an object undergoing accelerated motion
2.3 Measure momentum and determine whether momentum is conserved in a collision
2.4  Calculate forces, determine whether a material is linear elastic

3. Perform experiments in material and earth sciences
3.1 Determine the relative heat conductivity of different materials
3.2 Determine the electrical conductivity of different materials
3.3 Calculate the relationship between minutes of longitude/latitude and meters
3.4 Identify different types of precipitation and clouds
3.5 Identify whether solutions are acidic or basic

4. Perform experiments in wave based phenomena
4.1 Determine wavelength, frequency, period, amplitude, for waves and measure the speed of sound
4.2 Determine the relationships for optical depth behind a mirror and below the surface of water
4.3 Identify continuous and discrete spectra, list the orders of colors in spectra, and explore the combinations of primary colors of light used to produce secondary and other colors of light.
4.4 Determine the relationship between current and voltage for an electrical circuit

The first course level student learning outcome, demonstrate core scientific skills, includes three specific learning outcomes that run as binding threads through the duration of the course. 


The exploration of physical science systems using scientific methodologies is at the very center of the course. This outcome distinguishes the present physical science course at the college from versions of course delivered prior to 2007. Prior to 2007 the course outline was 188 specific pieces of memorized knowledge that the student was to learn during the 16 week course. The use of the word exploration is intended to convey a sense of a shift from memorized facts to engaging in science as a process. The use of the phrase scientific methodologies refers to an emphasis on generating knowledge from experimental work. 


Mathematical models are primarily generated through the laboratory work which is reported on by laboratory reports. Many of the systems explored are modeled by linear equations. The students use spreadsheet software to plot their data and obtain linear regressions for these systems. The intent here is to use science to deliver mathematics content. Science provides concrete cognitive hooks on which to hang mathematical knowledge and understanding. The experiments provide the concrete systems which model mathematical behaviors. College might otherwise be considered late in the academic life of a student for introducing concrete systems on which to build cognitive connections in mathematics, but the students actual understanding of mathematics is extremely limited as measured in a pre-test reported on in an earlier article, Numeric information in graphic forms skills pre-assessment. Note that all of the students had completed and passed a 100 level mathematics course prior to taking the pre-test. A post-test embedded in the final examination reported the students' significant gains in performance on mathematical material. These gains were reported on in Numeric information in graphic forms skills pre-post assessment

The students present and interpret their mathematical models (general education program learning outcome 3.2) via writing up the results of their experiments in a laboratory report using spreadsheet and word processing software.


The goal is both to communicate the science that the student has explored and to write a clear, well organized paper using quantitative tools when appropriate (general education program student learning outcome 1.1). This summer the students entered the course with moderate to strong writing skills. Given their writing capabilities at the start of the term, coupled with the brevity of the six week session, improvement in writing was not expected and not found. The laboratory reports are marked using a rubric with a five point scale for grammar, vocabulary, organization, and cohesion. The distribution of student scores on laboratory one (term start) and laboratory fourteen (term end) for grammar, vocabulary, organization, and cohesion is displayed in the box plot below (click to enlarge).


The small changes in the median values are not significant, and there is no change in the distributions. Two outliers for laboratory one are not present for laboratory fourteen. These individual improvements might be real for the individual student, but are not statistically significant.

Laboratory two determines the relationship between time and distance for an object undergoing linear motion - either a ball rolling in a parking lot or a marble rolling on a table. This laboratory is introduced during the morning class session by demonstrating the connection between time and distance for a RipStik.

In the afternoon the students measured different marble speeds on a table top. Rain prevented the class from working outside using a ball in the gym parking lot.



The students note the location of the marble at one, two, three, four, and five seconds. Time versus distance is plotted, the slope is the velocity of the marble. The linear regression is an estimator of the linear speed of the marble on the table. On the final examination 12 of the 16 students correctly calculated the velocity from a graph of time versus distance.

Laboratory three determines the relationship between time and distance for an object undergoing accelerated motion. Students obtain a parabolic graph. An algebraic transformation is used to produce a linear relationship between time and distance. The slope is the acceleration of gravity.



Students time the fall of a ball from different heights to gather the data for their laboratory report. On the final examination 12 of the 16 students correctly made an acceleration calculation. 16 of the 16 students can identify by shape and distinguish between accelerated and linear motion.

Direct measurement of momentum was not done this summer, the students focused instead on the twin concepts that mass into a collision is equivalent to mass outbound from a collision and speed into the collision is proportional to speed outbound from the collision.



This laboratory illustrated the difficulty of using marble collisions on tracks to show conservation of momentum. While mass in was equivalent to mass out - marbles were equal to marbles out - velocity losses of 46% and more were observed.

As a summer experiment laboratory five on Hooke's law was replaced by an experiment which measured the mechanical advantage for pulleys.


Four lines produces a mechanical advantage of four, although friction reduced the measured advantage to 3.36 on a best fit linear regression line. Data was gathered by varying the mass suspended from the pulleys and then measuring the force.


Fifteen of the sixteen students could recall the relationship between the number of lines and the mechanical advantage on the final examination, 12 of 16 correctly calculated the effective load.

Working in pairs, the class measured the relative heat conductivity of a variety of materials. Data was gathered and recorded on the board. The students then worked in larger groups to decide on a way to display their findings.


The class settled on column charts. On the final examination 16 of 16 students were able to correctly read a heat conductivity column chart to identify the most conductive material. Fifteen of the 16 were able to correctly read the chart to determine the temperature change for the material.

Electrical conductivity was explored in laboratory twelve, but not tested on the final examination.

Working as a class, the students determined the relationship between metric meters and minutes of latitude. As a part of the latitude and longitude activities that day, the class also searched for and found a lost stuffed animal knowing only the latitude and longitude and then using global positioning satellite receivers to navigate to the correct latitude and longitude. The stuffed animal was hidden out in the swamp to the north of campus.

On the midterm only four of sixteen students were able to calculate the meters per minute of latitude given raw data, on the final examination nine of sixteen correctly made this calculation.

Students were asked to both identify clouds and make drawings of clouds as part of a unit focusing on precipitation and weather.


Cloud identification proved more difficult for the students. During the final examination the class went outside to identify three different types of clouds present in the sky. Student success rates were 10, 7, and 4 on the three cloud types present in the sky that day.

The students learned to use floral litmus solutions to identify unknown acids and bases. In the first part of the laboratory the students tested different flowers in a search for an effective floral litmus solution. In the second part the students used that fluid to determine whether various unknowns were acids or bases.

Fourteen of the sixteen students could correctly identify whether a fluid was an acid, base, or neutral on the final examination.

Wave based phenomenon was introduced using the swizzle wave produced by a RipStik. The wave cannot be seen in the photograph below, but the imprint of the cement in the paper made by the wheel formed a sine wave.



This demonstration permitted the introduction of the concepts of wavelength, frequency, period, amplitude, for waves. Some of these can be seen in the board diagram below. 




Given a swizzle wave diagram and measurements on the wave, 10 of the 16 students were able to determine the amplitude of the wave. Only five of the students were able to determine the wavelength correctly. The swizzle wave consisted of three cycles, the most common mistake was a wavelength result three times longer than the actual wavelength. The time provided was also for three cycles. No student realized that this time had to be divided by three to obtain the correct period. This also led to incorrect frequency calculations.

In the laboratory the students measured the speed of sound by timing an echo produced with wooden clappers.

Although 16 of 16 could correctly calculate the slope of the time versus distance for an echo, only 12 realized that this slope was one and the same as the speed of sound. Eleven of those 12 went on to correctly calculate the percent error between the experimental speed of sound and the actual speed of sound.


Students determined the index of refraction for water using the apparent depth of a penny in water. This works for small viewing angles, with the exception of the basin, the graduated cylinders restrict one to a narrow viewing angle. This material was not tested on the final examination.



Students used gas discharge spectra tubes to explore discrete spectra. CD spectroscopes were also used to demonstrate to the students how a simple homemade instrument could be used to explore spectra. This material was tested during the term but not on the final examination.

Students explored the relationship between power, voltage, and current for an electric circuit. On the final examination 14 of the 16 students were able to make power, voltage, and current calculations. The laboratory that focused on this material was abbreviated due to college wide event.

In SC 130 Physical Science students wrote a clear, well-organized papers using documentation and quantitative tools when appropriate. The students presented and interpreted numeric information in graphic forms. The students defined and explained the concepts, principles, and theories of physical science. The students performed experiments that gathered scientific information. The students utilized and interpreted their data to explain the results of experiments. The students explores physical science systems using scientific methodologies, generated mathematical models for physical science systems, and wrote up the results of experiments in a formal format using spreadsheet and word processing software. The students accomplished the program and course student learning outcomes.

Popular posts from this blog

Box and whisker plots in Google Sheets

Traditional food dishes of Micronesia

Creating histograms with Google Sheets