Teaching with Modeling in AP Physics

Modeling is a student-centered, inquiry-based, very successful teaching method originally developed at Arizona State University and now maintained by the American Modeling Teachers Association.

The clearest evidence that AP Physics and Modeling are a great fit is seen in the AP Physics Science Practices. These are embedded in each course, outlining the skills that should be developed by the students. Each AP Exam question incorporates one or more Science Practices. This is described in detail in the Course and Exam Description for each course. There is a set of SPs for AP Physics 1 and 2 (see below), and a slightly different set for AP Physics C Mechanics and Electricity and Magnetism.

In this post, I’ll take you through the Science Practices for AP Physics 1 and 2, and I’ll list one example of a connection with Modeling for each practice.

Science Practice 1, Modeling

“The student can use representations and models to communicate scientific phenomena and solve scientific problems”

What could be more clear! Science Practice #1 is “Modeling” and the Modeling Method for teaching physics is about training students to see science as the process of constructing conceptual models to explain nature.

In teaching with modeling, students begin most units by examining paradigms (standard examples) of each model in a student-designed lab. The students represent the behavior of the paradigm with four types of representations, mathematical, graphical, pictorial, and verbal. That means Science Practice 1 is embedded in every Modeling unit right from the start.

Science Practice 2, Mathematical Routines

“The student can use mathematics appropriately.”

In AP Physics 1/2 this Science Practice is often used to indicate an exam question that requires calculations by the student. But it is also used to indicate cases where a student has to explain WHY an equation (or a graph) makes sense, or why a representation models a physical situation. Here is an example from the 2019 AP Physics 1 released exam questions:

link to the 2019 AP Physics 1 questions

In teaching with Modeling, we use classroom discourse to accomplish the same ends. The teacher (and even other students) ask deep questions that cause students to justify the graph that they constructed, or the mathematics that they used to solve a problem. The whole class participates in this discussion, so that everybody understands WHY the techniques that were applied to create the model or solve the problem make sense. I wrote this blog post describing some of the popular whiteboarding techniques.

Science Practice 3, Scientific Questioning

“The student can engage in scientific questioning to extend thinking or to guide investigations within the context of the AP® course.

This science practice has three components:

3.1 The student can pose scientific questions.

3.2 The student can refine scientific questions.

3.3 The student can evaluate scientific questions.

In teaching with modeling, many units begin with a student-designed “paradigm lab.” Teachers demonstrate an interesting system, the “paradigm” (a pendulum, in one unit), and students (with lots of guidance and some limitations) choose what they want to investigate about the physics of the paradigm. Students pose observations and questions about the system in a whole-class brainstorm. They refine the questions in deciding what variables to test and how they can test them. And they evaluate the questions in the model-building discussion that follows the lab, where students decide what their lab results mean.

Typical graphs that students have to explain after the pendulum lab.

Science Practice 4, Experimental Methods

 “The student can plan and implement data collection strategies appropriate to a particular scientific question.

On the AP exam, this is assessed in a question where students must design a lab to answer a question. In the modeling classroom, this is a component of nearly every unit. Modeling-trained teachers give students leeway to create and carry out their own labs. This is excellent practice for AP experimental questions.

Don’t try this at home!

Science Practice 5, Data Analysis

The student can perform data analysis and evaluation of evidence.

In modeling, students must frequently collect data, construct a table, graph the data, produce a mathematical model that represents the data (and the physical system), and then explain in their whiteboard presentation their whole process and findings.


A student group’s whiteboard

And here’s an example of how the AP Exam assesses the skills developed from teaching with inquiry and modeling, also from the 2019 AP Physics 1 Free Response questions:

Science Practice 6, Argumentation

 “The student can work with scientific explanations and theories.

Argumentation involves justifying, constructing explanations, making claims, and evaluating explanations. One place on the AP Physics Exam where this Science Practice is often assessed is the “Paragraph-Length Explanation” question. There is one of these on every AP Physics 1 and 2 exam. In the Paragraph Length Explanation question, students tie together several different ideas in physics to explain the behavior of a physical system. This is quite challenging!

Modeling students should be well-trained in these skills. The skilled modeling teacher is constantly demanding that their students justify and explain physics.

Science Practice 7, Making Connections

The student is able to connect and relate knowledge across various scales, concepts, and representations in and across domains.

Isn’t this the goal of all science teachers, but especially modeling science teachers? A great example of this is the placement of the projectile motion unit in the modeling workshop I attended. Instead of being in the first unit or two, projectile motion was placed in unit 6. This was so that students could use all of the tools they have been taught in the early units: graphical models, mathematical models, pictorial models motion maps (the infamous “dot diagrams” that bedevil so many students), free-body diagrams and the whole force concept. Instead of projectiles being a scary, painful assault of obscure equations, students see it in the context of the course. It becomes both easier to understand and less scary by this simple adjustment.

Here is an example (from the released 2018 AP Physics 1 Free-Response Questions) of how the AP exam assesses both Argumentation and Making Connections. In answering this question, students must put together two areas of physics: momentum and oscillation.

I hope this all makes sense. Please comment or ask questions if you feel the need.

Go to the AMTA website (modelinginstruction.org) and check out all of the resources for modeling, if you’re new to it. A modeling workshop is great background for teaching the Science Practices in AP Physics.

About marcreif

I live and teach high school physics in the town I was born in, Fayetteville, Arkansas. My professional interests include modeling instruction and Advanced Placement courses. I also work as a College Board Workshop Consultant, which means I lead Pre-AP and AP Science Teacher workshops. Lately I've also been leading a fair amount of student review sessions for the National Math and Science Initiative. I have a website for students (fysicsfool.info) and another for AP Summer Institute participants (apsifool.info). I tweet infrequently (@marcreif).
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