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Uncovering Student Ideas in Physical Science

Uncovering Student Ideas in Physical Science, Volumes 1-4, provide a set of grades K-12+ formative assessment probes that link key concepts in physical science to commonly held ideas described in the research on learning. This series is co-authored by physicist and physics education researcher and specialist, Dr. Rand Harrington. These probes can be used to reveal the variety of ideas students have about basic physics and chemistry related concepts students bring to their learning. Used individually or as a set, these probes provide the diagnostic and formative tools K-8 physical science and physics and chemistry teachers at all grades need to uncover the preconceptions students bring to their learning and inform pathways needed to build a conceptual bridge from where students are at any point in the instructional cycle to where they need to be scientifically. The series will include 4 volumes: Force and Motion; Electricity and Magnetism; Sound and Light, and Matter and Energy.


 This series is co-authored by Dr. Rand Harrington who brings his extensive knowledge about physics and learning to this series. Rand, a former middle and high school teacher, received his PhD in physics at the University of Washington where he joined the Physics Education Research Group under the leadership of Dr. Lillian McDermott. While working with this group he taught with and helped develop the Physics by Inquiry curriculum as well as Tutorials in Introductory Physics, which is used in many introductory physics courses. Rand's interest in electricity and magnetism led to his dissertation on identifying and addressing the difficulties students have with understanding electric phenomena. After completing his PhD, Rand accepted an assistant professor appointment at the University of Maine where he founded the Physics Education Research Group (originally the LRPE) and collaborated with Page Keeley and Francis Eberle at the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance. In addition he served on the ETS Physics SAT II test construction committee and on the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) committee on research in physics education. In 1999 he left Maine to start a "Phyics First" high school science program at the Harker School in San Jose, CA and became interested in computer-based instruction. Currently he is the assistant headmaster at the Blake School in Minneapolis, MN. Rand has served as a consultant for several independent schools, served as a reviewer for the American Journal of Physics, teaches a summer course for undergraduate science and engineering majors at the University of Minnesota, received the Juliet Nelson Award for Excellence in Teaching, and taught physics to Tibetan monks as part of the Science for Monks program in Dharamsala, India. We are indeed fortunate to have Rand as a leading co-author on this series.


Uncovering Student Ideas in Physical Science (Volume 1)- 45 New Force and Motion Assessment Probes, by Page Keeley and Rand Harrington (2010). This book, the first volume in the NSTA Press USI Physical Science series includes 45 force and motion formative assessment probes that can be used across multiple grade spans, as well as pre-service teacher education and teacher professional development. The introductory chapter that precedes the forty-five probes provides an overview of the research, teaching, and student ideas related to force and motion including a historical background on force and motion-related ideasreasons why students have difficulty with force and motion related concepts, common instructional difficulties related to teaching about gravitational interactions, stepping stones: emerging concepts and language, advice for implementing the probes, and an elementary and middle school classroom vignette. The book also includes a foreword by physics education researcher, Dr. Jim Minstrell. This volume is the recipient of the 2011 Distinguished Achievement Award from the Association of Educational Publishers (AEP). Click here to read the introductory chapter and download a sample probe- Just Rolling Along. The probes are organized in 3 sections: Describing Position and Motion; Forces and Newton's Laws; Mass, Weight, Gravity and Other Topics.

Photo at right: High School teacher in Guilin, China- photo taken during Page Keeley's visit to schools in China 2010.


The following is a list of each probe, the related concepts addressed by the probe, and recommended grade span use (note:modifications, described in the teachers' notes, should be made in order to use some probes at a lower grade level):

HOW FAR DID IT GO?- distance, measurement, position (1-4)

SKATE PARK- acceleration, changing speed, constant speed, time, uniform motion (6-12)

FOLLOWING JACK-PART 1- constant speed, distance, position, speed, time, time intervals, uniform motion (6-12)                    

FOLLOWING JACK-PART 2- constant speed, distance, position, speed, time, time intervals, graph, uniform motion (6-12)

GO CART TEST RUN- clock readings, constant speed, distance, position, speed, time, time intervals, graph, uniform motion (6-12)

CHECKING THE SPEEDOMETER- clock readings, displacement, position, ratio, speed, time intervals (6-12)

SPEED UNITS- average speed, ratio, speed, units (6-12)

JUST ROLLING ALONG- constant speed, displacement, speed, uniform motion (6-12)

CROSSING THE FINISH LINE- average speed, changing speed, instantaneous speed, position, speed, time intervals (8-12)

NASCAR RACING- average speed, speed, velocity (6-12)

ROLLER COASTER RIDE- acceleration, speed, velocity (6-12)

ROLLING MARBLES- average speed, changing speed, speed, time, time intervals (1-8)

STRING AROUND THE EARTH- circumference, proportion, ration (8-12)

TALKING ABOUT FORCES- pushes and pulls (K-5)

DOES IT HAVE TO TOUCH?- action-at-a-distance force, contact force (2-8)

FORCE AND MOTION IDEAS- active action, constant speed, direction of motion, interaction, passive action (6-12)

FRICTION- contact force, friction, interaction, kinetic friction, rolling friction, sliding friction, static friction (6-12)

A WORLD WITHOUT FRICTION- friction, Newton's First Law (6-12)

ROLLING TO A STOP- energy transfer, friction, interaction (6-12)

OUTER SPACE PUSH- Newton's First Law (6-12)

RIDING IN THE PARADE- Newton's First Law (6-12)

SPACESHIPS- changing direction, direction of motion, Newton's First Law (9-12)

APPLE IN A PLANE- active action, contact force, gravitational force, interaction, normal force, passive action (6-12)

BALL ON A STRING- centripetal force, changing direction, Newton's First Law (3-12)

WHY THINGS FALL- action-at-a-distance force, gravitational force, mass, net force, Newton's Second Law, weight (6-12)

PULLING ON A SPOOL- net force, Newton's Second Law, rolling friction, tension (9-12)

LIFTING BUCKETS- constant speed, net force, Newton's Second Law (9-12)

FINGER STRENGTH CONTEST- interaction, Newton's Third Law (6-12)

EQUAL AND OPPOSITE- interaction, Newton's Third Law, and normal force (8-12)

RIDING IN A CAR- circular motion, Newton's First Law (6-12)

PIZZA DOUGH- conservation of mass, mass, weight (3-12)

WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE WEIGHT?- buoyant force, floating, gravitational force, weight (3-12)

WEIGHING WATER- pressure, weight (3-12)

EXPERIENCING GRAVITY- gravitational force, gravity, Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation (3-12)

APPLE ON THE GROUND- gravitational force, gravity, Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation (3-12)

FREE-FALLING OBJECTS- balancing, free fall, gravitational force, gravity, Newton's Second Law (6-12)

GRAVITY ROCKS!- gravitational force, gravity, gravitational potential energy (6-12)

THE TOWER DROP- gravitational force, gravity, sperical earth (3-8)

PULLEY SIZE- mechanical advantage, pulley, simple machine, tension (8-12)

RESCUING ISABELLE- mechanical advantage, pulley, simple machine, tension, work (9-12)

CUTTING A LOG- balancing, center of mass, mass, torque, turning effect, weight (3-12)

BALANCE BEAM- balancing, mass, weight (K-5)

LIFTING A ROCK- energy, fulcrum, lever, mechanical advantage, potential energy, simple machine, work (6-12)

SWINGING PENDULUM- pendulum, periodic motion, variables (3-8)

BICYCLE GEARS- gears, gear ratioo, energy, work (9-12)



Uncovering Student Ideas in Physical Science (Volume 2)- 30 New Electricity and Magnetism Assessment Probes, by Page Keeley and Rand Harrington - Released in 2014

Uncovering Student Ideas in Physical Science (Volume 3)- 30 New Matter and Energy Assessment Probes, by Page Keeley and Susan Cooper (Anticipated release date: Fall 2017)

Uncovering Student Ideas in Physical Science (Volume 4)- 30 New Sound, Light, and Waves Assessment Probes, by Page Keeley and TBA (Anticipated release date: Spring 2020)

All of the books in this series can be ordered through NSTA Press, Amazon or other on-line book sellers.








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