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Physics class provides lessons in science, music, math

December 13, 2010

Whitney Mooney, an 18-year-old ASU freshman education major, said when she learned that her first year math course included physics, she said, “I freaked out.” A graduate of Mesa’s Mountain View High School, she said, “I have avoided math-based science classes at all costs.”

Robert Culbertson, an associate professor of physics in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, knows all about physics phobia. Students “are scared to death of it, so I never use the word in this class,” he said.

Still, the class, exclusively for freshmen students in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, was a tough sell. But during a half dozen freshmen orientation sessions, Culbertson convinced 17 students to enroll in his  “Music in Motion” class, lured by the promise that instead of lectures and blackboard diagrams, they would focus on the principles of vibration and sound waves and the actual construction of simple musical instruments, from  single-stringed monochords to xylophones, chimes and flutes. 

“That sounded like fun,’’ Mooney said, building a wood-framed xylophone with galvanized steel pipe. In a larger sense, students learn that physics is the blueprint for the way the world works, including music.  

Those principles teach that a string shortened by a player’s finger vibrates at a faster rate, producing a higher note, and the air column in a flute “behaves like a vibrating string.”

Culbertson’s classroom is a mini Home Depot, stocked with saws, drills, hammers, portable work tables, goggles and a variety of pipes and wire. The equipment is funded in part by a $150,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) 2008-2010 grant designed to reach students who are not in math, science or engineering majors.

Dale Rose Baker, ASU professor of science education in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, is assessing the class for the NSF grant. She is enthusiastic that "Music in Motion" includes ASU 101 series of classes, designed to allow freshmen to explore a variety of courses before they select a major.

Culbertson’s class is “is real hands-on work, engaging students in activities that link them to what they are interested in today … music,” Baker said. “They are not doing it in the abstract. I look at pre- and post-tests of the content of the course and whether or not there is a statistically significant difference from pre- to post-testing.”

She said she will give that information to Culbertson, the NSF principal investigator, to include in his report to the science foundation.

Culbertson’s hands-on method of teaching math and science scored big with his students, who plan to become teachers. When he asked them whether hands-on teaching of science and math would influence their teaching styles and why, they all praised Culbertson for bringing math and science to life in the class and planned to adopt his style when they stand before a classroom.

“I actually understand the material with this method as opposed to memorizing endless equations and regurgitating them when the time comes for the test,” said Karla Zazueta.

Cara Dong said she believes her future students will benefit from her “many hands-on methods” and will actually want to participate in the classroom.

Meanwhile, Culbertson said he is making changes to the class, which presently is the lead course in an academic success cluster that includes MAT 142 and ASU 101. The new course will be open to education majors at all levels in fall 2011. MAT 142, a math class, is expected to be a prerequisite.

So why is it important to offer a rigorous physics class to undergraduate education majors? “We believe it takes an entire university to train an effective teacher,” said Mari Koerner, dean of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. “With our curriculum innovation, we are working across ASU to add a broad range of content preparation supporting academic standards for our pre-service teachers. We have replaced 25 percent of undergraduate education courses with arts and sciences curriculum.”

Culbertson worked with Teachers College and created the "Music in Motion" class three years ago to liberate students from tedious lectures and blackboard diagrams.

“We talk about the monochord vibrating. We have nodes where there is no vibrating motion. In the conventional way of teaching, you would draw a picture of a string on a blackboard and indicate where the nodes are," Culbertson said. “But when students have the monochord in their hands, they can touch the nodes and force them to be in certain places. They can hear it and feel it.

“I try to make the classes interactive,” he said, adding: “Research shows that a traditional lecture is one of the least effective teaching methods.”

Students in Culbertson’s class agreed. They dug into their projects with the enthusiasm of a scientist on the verge of a breakthrough.

On a recent afternoon, they were preparing for a looming December recital where they would debut their unique homemade instruments as part of their final project.

Brandon Adams, 17, and Dylan Harwood, 18, both of southern California, discovered that their 16-inch PVC pipe flute was too short to accommodate the flutes’ holes which are covered and uncovered by the player to create a range of vibrations that produce notes.

In the end, Adams experimented with placing the flute mouthpiece in the middle of the flute instead of at the end, predicting that the change would lower the instrument’s tone. “I always wondered why the mouthpiece was on the left,” he said.

For the recital, Tina Boyle, 18, planned to play “Jingle Bells” on her chimes, eight 750 milliliter narrow-necked bottles suspended by strings from a PVC pipe frame. The bottles contained various amounts of water that vibrate when struck with a wooden mallet, producing an array of sounds. As she played, she discovered she needed an “E” note to play the Christmas classic. 

Boyle said she has no musical background. “I listen to the radio,” she said.

Her search sent her on a scientific exploration of how to change water levels in the bottles to find the perfect pitch for the missing note. She said the class has taught that “physics is in everything you do.”

By Carol Sowers

Jenni Thomas,
Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College