Longer class allows students to delve deeper

January 03, 1994|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

The nine students in Judy Plaskowitz's freshman Level 1 science class may not grow up to be rocket scientists -- but who knows?

They certainly were having fun in her general science class this past semester -- all 90 minutes a day of it at Westminster High School.

Ms. Plaskowitz said she learned something, too: that even students in lower levels can learn science, and enjoy it.

"I have never taught Level 1 before -- this was a revelation to me," Ms. Plaskowitz said.

When she asks questions, or asks for a volunteer to help with a demonstration, arms shoot up. The students pay attention, take notes, ask questions for the whole hour and a half.

The class began as a pilot project initiated by Larry Ferguson, science chairman, and others at the school who would like to have four class periods a day that are 90 minutes long, instead of the traditional school day of more periods of about 45 minutes each. A typical academic course would last one semester instead of a whole year.

Ms. Plaskowitz's class was a great success, according to her, Mr. Ferguson and a few students polled at the end of one period. But the whole faculty is not ready for a four-period day. Only 61 percent of the faculty voted to do it, short of the 75 percent majority that the principal and teachers had set as a goal.

"I think for a science teacher, it's a no-lose situation," Ms. Plaskowitz said. "One of the greatest problems with a 40-minute setup is you are always rushing around. There's always a push to get the kids in, do a lab and get them out again."

With a longer period, Ms. Plaskowitz can introduce the ideas that students will practice in a lab, provide time to perform the experiments, then discuss them. Science teachers at Westminster and at North Carroll high schools, which have moved to a four-period day this year, say that works well for all levels of students.

"My daughter doesn't know we're playing with her Slinky today," Ms. Plaskowitz told the class as she pulled out the neon-pink plastic coil.

The lesson was on sound waves. How they move. How they need a medium through which to move.

"My pet peeve is in space movies when they blow up the enemy spaceship and it makes a loud noise," Ms. Plaskowitz said. "In reality, would you be able to hear anything?"

No, the students say. In the vacuum of space, there would be no matter through which the sound waves could travel. It is a new twist on the riddle about the tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it.

"Sound waves bounce. What do you call a bouncing sound wave?" the teacher asks. When no responses come, she prompts them -- what about yelling into a valley?

"Oh! Echoes," one student says.

"How does a telephone work?" another asks. Sound is converted to electricity, then back to sound, the teacher explains.

Lisa Pukalski of Finksburg asks about a television and movie cliche: cupping a glass against a wall to hear what's on the other side.

"Sure, it works," Ms. Plaskowitz said. "It extends your ear and helps you draw sound to your ear."

Because no one can see a sound wave, Ms. Plaskowitz and the students spent the 90 minutes trying to demonstrate the theories using everything from toys to boys and girls.

She sent a wave through the stretched Slinky that vibrated to the student holding the other end.

Maybe there's a better way, she said. She lined up shoulder to shoulder with the students.

"OK. We're all air molecules waiting for a sound wave to come along," she said. She made a human wave by leaning to the right, making the next student lean to the right and so on until the last two students bumped shoulders.

Sound waves move quickly and efficiently, she said. That shoulder "wave" traveled down the line faster than anyone could have walked it, Ms. Plaskowitz told the class.

Freshman Adam Zepp offered to race the shoulder wave. The teacher and remaining students repeated the demonstration. Adam lost the race. A classmate, Missy Luhn, tried. She barely beat the sound wave, but she was running.

"Sound is energy. Sound is created by vibration," Ms. Plaskowitz said.

Adam wondered if these facts could explain a product he has seen on television.

"You know the Clapper? Does that have anything to do with energy?" he asked.

Ms. Plaskowitz was unfamiliar with the "clap-on, clap-off" product, which lets people turn on lights or electrical equipment by clapping their hands, but she was curious.

"My question is, how does it know the difference" between the purposeful clap and other sounds, Ms. Plaskowitz said.

She told Adam that if he could find one in a store, she would buy one and they could look at it in class.

When asked later about the tangents students pursue in class, about Clappers and glasses to the wall, Ms. Plaskowitz said those are essential to helping students learn science.

"You need to answer that when students bring an example from the outside world and ask you. They are trying to relate science to their own lives," she said.

Although she tries to answer those questions no matter how long the class, having 90 minutes a day with a group of students means she has to watch the clock a little less.

"I'm much more comfortable with the digressions," she said.

For this freshman science class, a longer class period early in the day with only nine students has turned out to be an ideal situation, Ms. Plaskowitz said.

Teacher Alan DeGennaro taught a similar Level 1 freshman science class in the afternoon, for 90 minutes, but with 17 students and for the last period of the day. Students were less comfortable with the longer class after having five shorter ones all day, he said.

"It's almost like they work for 45 minutes, then they feel like they should be finished," Mr. DeGennaro said. But he said he still supports 90-minute periods.

"I'm very disappointed" that Westminster won't make the change next year, he said. "We as a science department had invested a lot of thought into it."

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