Physics for Architects in Active-Learning Format by Bill Ashmanskas


The pandemic motivated me to convert Physics for Architects into SAIL (Structured, Active, In-Class Learning) format. Our classroom now buzzes with activity, making physics as engaging for the 50 students as it is for me.

PHYS 0008 is a sector course tailored to visual learners, many eager to excel in a later Architectural Structures course. Most students have seldom used math since high-school calculus or physics.

We first follow an unconventional textbook by Eric Mazur, who is known for pedagogical innovation, then finish with a beautifully pencil-sketch-illustrated book by Onouye and Kane.

The pre-pandemic auditorium lectures were entertaining, packed with live demonstrations and think-pair-share exercises. I assigned graded homework problems each week, and in office hours, I happily compared notes with students who had tried each problem beforehand. Students answered open-ended questions about textbook chapters to prepare for class. I emphasized learning physics by doing it, so doing the homework and arriving for lecture prepared to participate were key.

Alas, wheeling a three-ring circus in and out of an auditorium booked for other courses before and after reduced the window to chat with students. Some course reviews complained of a few students’ copying homework. I had heard that cooperative problem-solving used classroom time more effectively than passively watching lectures. And I knew that discussing physics problems in office hours was the most fun part of teaching—much more rewarding than performing in an auditorium. Finally, students often asked to join in the fun I was having with demonstrations at the front of the room, e.g., colliding toy carts on low-friction tracks.

In the new format, illustrated in the highlights video linked from, students spend most classroom time in small groups, solving pencil-and-paper problems that used to be weekly homework. The buzz of students’ voices illustrates just how active students are in the classroom. The video also shows the hands-on activities that SAIL coordinator Ryan Batkie devised to connect physics with students’ own tactile and visual experience.

I like that problem-solving, which is central to learning, now happens where I see it. When students are puzzled by a problem, they can turn to their classmates, me, or the TA, instead of searching the web.

This format depends critically on students’ preparing for class. Quoting Eric Mazur, “information transfer” happens at home, so precious classroom time is spent assimilating concepts and skills. To prepare, students choose between my video or a textbook chapter, though some topics require both. Most students prefer the videos: 40 hours of old lecture content became 33 hours of video.

To collect credit for preparing, students answer questions: “How do we now understand the beam-on-two-scales problem from the first day of class?” and “What are the three equations you can write for an object in equilibrium in a plane?” and “Tell me something you found interesting about my simplified model of an arch or how we analyzed it.” I always include, “What topic from today’s assignment did you find most difficult or confusing or interesting?”

I aim to respond to a quarter of students’ submissions.  I clarify misconceptions or mistakes. I praise students for engaging articulately. I answer students’ tangential questions, such as about anti-lock brakes or centrifugal pseudogravity. One student, after answering, added: “I just want to say how cool and interesting I think it is that we’re finally getting to the point in the curriculum where we can combine the various concepts from earlier in the semester (forces, friction, torque, tension, etc.) into an actual architecture-based application like designing an arch. It’s great to see everything come together.”

The video format varies. A transparent “lightboard” lets me face the camera and gesticulate as I write, so students follow my hands and eyes as I work examples. Video lets me mix board work and auditorium demonstration without a live lecture’s time pressure. Sometimes I project lecture slides onto half of the lightboard and annotate the slide while talking and writing out equations on the other half. Many slides ask students to pause to ponder multiple-choice questions. In some questions, students predict the outcome of a demonstration I splice in after we rule out all but one answer. So that lectures largely replace textbook reading, I use the lightboard for chalkboard-style introductions of concepts and derivations of key results, often in more detail than in a time-constrained live lecture. A clickable table of contents lets students skip such derivations, or find a given worked example.

Integrating demonstrations with board work is my favorite feature of the videos. In summer 2021, lecture demonstration coordinator Mary Marcopul and I filmed the dozens of demonstrations I used to do live. Many demonstration clips have since been reused in a colleague’s online LPS course.

Since students spend 40 classroom hours solving problems in groups, I took care in assigning workgroups. I formed stable groups of three, initially by year and major, adjusting until students worked well together. Each class, I randomly assigned three-person groups to six-person tables, so students met every classmate eventually. Whereas I had heard suggestions to group students heterogeneously, several students who liked to work methodically disliked feeling pressured by sitting with students who worked faster. So I grouped these more methodical students together, with the result that they seemed to enjoy every moment they spent doing physics cooperatively.

Another pandemic-inspired innovation replaces a written final exam with an oral chalkboard exam. I draw questions at random from a bank of problems distributed in advance, motivating students to practice every problem. Groups of three take turns at a whiteboard for two hours, without notes. The format takes time to administer but not to grade: the TA and I compare notes for each student after each group finishes. For ranking, this format is less incisive than a written exam, but the students’ interaction with me has pedagogical value. By hearing students’ reasoning, I gain empathy for and insight into the thinking of students who make the effort but work less quickly. And careless mistakes disappear when I catch missing minus signs in real time. Finally, spending two hours solving problems together is a more personal end to the semester than a written exam.

With students so engaged in class, I resist trading learning time for midterm exams. But one risk of eliminating midterms is to identify, too late, the students who would benefit from more instructor attention. I plan, next time, to visit groups frequently, asking students to think aloud as they work at the whiteboard—for constructive feedback on their learning and to identify students who need more coaching. I hope also to get students comfortable working at the board, well before the exam.

Though transforming Physics for Architects required weeks of videography, the result is a cooperative classroom format where learning physics by solving problems is fun for a wide range of Penn students. In students’ own words from evaluations: “This was honestly the most fun I’ve had in a course in a while. My partner being one of my best friends helped but it was a really good time and I learned a lot.” The course “made physics so much less intimidating than I expected it to be; I felt like I was able to learn for the sake of learning.” The course “made me actually enjoy and learn physics (even though I am a political science major).” “As an architecture major, I feel more confident in my skills.” “I believe this course is really going to help prepare me to take Structures I and II next year.”

Bill Ashmanskas is a senior lecturer in physics. He is a 2020 recipient of the Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence by Non-Standing Faculty and a 2019 recipient of the College of Arts & Sciences Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching by Affiliated Faculty.