Prior to ninth grade I knew little about the subject of physics, but what I had seen of it made my head spin. All of the equations and different laws of gravity and motion appeared to be a never-ending path of confusion, and I was apprehensive about taking a course that seemed so complicated. However, once I stepped into Dr. Richard Wall’s ninth grade Conceptual Physics course my view shifted. I had anticipated textbooks that would be incomprehensible and countless hours of struggling with new concepts, but I am happy to say that my preconceived notions were one hundred percent false. Conceptual Physics turned out to be an incredibly interactive and engaging class that introduced me to a new and innovative way of learning the material. Instead of relying on dry textbooks to teach confusing concepts, my freshman physics class showed me how effectively student-led, hands-on labs based in real-world scenarios could help break down complex principles.
One of the most memorable units from Conceptual Physics focused on describing motion based on laboratory observations. I remember walking into the science lab one day and seeing miniature carts and ramps set up along the tables. We spent the class investigating how different types of launching mechanisms — a simple incline, a compressed spring, and a weighted pulley system — could help our cart travel along a plastic track. We conducted multiple trials to get our cart to move along the track, stopping after each one to measure its position using ultrasonic range finders or Bluetooth sensors and record our findings. Completing a fun experiment like this with my peers really helped me gain a better understanding of motion, and this student-directed, hands-on style of learning continued throughout the year. According to Dr. Wall, “Physics is best retained when we experience the results firsthand and are able to ‘discover’ new models ourselves,” and every time he introduced our class to a new topic, an interactive lab quickly followed.
Another hands-on lab I vividly remember was designed to help us learn about gravity and motion. To start, we recorded a series of objects such as pool balls, tennis balls, and basketballs as they fell. Once we had taped trials with each object, we uploaded our videos into Logger Pro, a data analysis program that used the video we recorded to chart the motion of our falling objects. We took the variables that Logger Pro created and used them to create a graph that helped us understand how gravity affected different objects depending on their weight. For this particular lab, our graph explained and deepened our knowledge of the laws of gravity and motion, but as Dr. Wall shares, “Creating graphs and mathematical models that help us understand trends in data and extract meaning is a useful way to solve almost any problem, from the engineering of a building to prices on the stock market. Hewitt students have used graphs and models to deepen their understanding of a variety of real-world occurrences that they find personally interesting, including the physics of dance and golf, how a dog moves its tongue to lap water, the role of tidal forces from the moon and winds in the formation of waves in the ocean, and how helicopters generate lift.”
While charting variables and analyzing tables may sound mundane to someone who has never taken physics before, the energy in our class was the opposite of dull thanks to Dr. Wall’s approach to the material. When I asked about his inspiration, he shared: “I did not actually like physics in high school, where it was taught to me straight from a textbook. I found the smaller seminar classes I took in college to be more engaging and fun, and as a teacher, those are the kinds of physics experiences I want my students to have.” Whether we were laughing over forgetting to record a variable or debating who had the correct answer to a question, my classmates and I made countless memories as we learned together. The cooperative, hands-on, and student-directed learning in our class led to many cheerful moments and helped motivate us to stay focused and determined. Dr. Wall’s continuous support and guidance, positive approach to difficult new concepts, and the way he encouraged us to keep exploring new ideas made the learning process fun and made our physics class a joyous and appealing environment.
Looking back, not only did our labs help me understand important concepts in physics such as the laws of motion and the conservation of energy and momentum, but they also nurtured many collaboration, organization, and time management skills. Each lab required us to complete several different tasks, and we had to work carefully as a team in order to have productive outcomes. Conducting physics labs also helped me improve my perseverance. I was encouraged to keep trying when I found myself struggling, and my hard work resulted in a greater sense of accomplishment when I finally succeeded. My experiences in ninth grade physics have given me the courage to pursue a subject that I initially thought would be overwhelmingly challenging, which feels heartening and empowering. While I might not yet be in the running for a Nobel Prize in physics, I do predict I will dive deeper into the subject in eleventh and twelfth grades when I have the opportunity to take advanced physics. Thanks to my experience in Conceptual Physics, as I move forward in high school and beyond I am confident that nothing is out of my reach if I open my mind, work hard, and embrace new challenges.