Exploring physical science systems using scientific methodologies

A proposed outline for SC 130 Physical Science includes the following three course level student learning outcomes:

  1. Explore physical science systems using scientific methodologies
  2. Generate mathematical models for physical science systems and use appropriate mathematical techniques and concepts to obtain quantitative solutions to problems in physical science.
  3. Demonstrate basic communication skills by working in groups on laboratory experiments and by writing up the result of experiments, including thoughtful discussion and interpretation of data, in a formal format using spreadsheet and word processing software.

The second learning outcome serves, in part, the general education program learning outcome, "3.2 Present and interpret numeric information in graphic forms." Student performance against general education program learning outcome 3.2 was reported on in Numeric information in graphic forms skills pre-post assessment.

The third learning outcome serves, in part, the general education program learning outcome, "1.1 Write a clear, well-organized paper using documentation and quantitative tools when appropriate." Student performance on 1.1 was reported on in Writing improvement in physical science.

The first learning outcome requires that the students be able to explore physical science systems using scientific methodologies. For SC 130 Physical Science this exploration would be framed by the theme of mathematical models that underlie physical science systems. This, in turn, serves the general education program learning outcome, "3.5 Perform experiments that use scientific methods as part of the inquiry process."

The inadequacy of the science curriculum in the elementary and secondary schools does not well prepare students to explore physical science systems in a wholly unguided and unstructured manner. Laboratory fourteen is designed to provide minimal structure and guidance. Laboratory fourteen provides only a system, a suggested starting approach, and an explanation of the equipment being used and the variables being investigated. The system was chosen to be new and unfamiliar to the students.

The students were provided equipment to investigate whether a mathematical relationship exists between the launch velocity of a flying disk (or ring) and the flight distance. If a relationship was found, the students were to make a non-statistical determination as to whether the relationship is linear. If the relationship appeared to be linear, the students should have known to proceed on to an analysis that included the slope and intercept. A complete laboratory would include a discussion of the sources of error.

Nineteen students completed laboratory report fourteen. Note that while students may work in pairs or small groups during the laboratory, each is required to complete their own laboratory report. Of the nineteen, two students reversed the velocity and distance data, reversing the independent and dependent variables. While this reversal could still lead to a determination of linearity, the reversal betrays a lack of understanding of how the variable relate physically.

One student did not record data in a manner that would lead to meaningful results. The student errantly recorded an intermediate value which led to three variables, one of which was spurious.

The sixteen remaining students had data design layout that could lead to the appropriate analysis. Their tables and graphs kept the independent variable on the x-axis, and the dependent variable on the y-axis. Of the sixteen, fourteen then determined that the relationship was linear. Note that the data does not fall in a straight line, the data scatters to the left and right of a linear regression. By this point in the term the students should be familiar with scatter and should already know that scatter does not make a system non-linear. That said, two opted to call the system non-linear, which is the end of the analysis in SC 130.

Fourteen students noted that the system appeared to be linear, but only two proceeded to quote the slope and intercept values after determining the system was linear. Note that the order is important: the linear slope and intercept have no meaning unless the system is linear, thus a determination of linearity should precede quoting the slope and intercept. Six other students quoted the slope and intercept, but did so prior to discussing the linearity of the system.

Whether a student should be able to work through a system from raw data to a complete and appropriate mathematical analysis after a single 16 week science with laboratory course is a matter for discussion. At some level fourteen of nineteen engaged with the data and drew a meaningful, if not fully complete, conclusion.

Laboratory fourteen was designed to provide assessment data pertinent to the first learning outcome on the proposed outline. The other assessments provide information relevant to other program learning outcomes.

Note that the final examination is item analyzed and that analysis can be used to inform a fourth general education program learning outcome, "3.4 Define and explain scientific concepts, principles, and theories of a field of science." Thirty-two of the sixty-nine questions on the final examination mapped against 3.4. The item analysis success rate on those 32 questions was 53.6%. That is, students answered these thirty-two questions right 53.6% of the time.

The proposed outline is designed to address the four general education learning outcomes cited while providing academic freedom to instructors to determine how to meet those outcomes.

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