Science is fun

Published 11:29 am Tuesday, October 14, 2008

There’s a waiting list for Ellis Middle Schools’ new Integrated Physics and Technology class for seventh graders.

Students inquire with teachers Steve Weisgram and Tom Fritz. Parents call the school asking if their sons and daughters can be considered for placement in the class when openings occur.

Katie Berglund, principal, said the new course is “a great opportunity to get our kids excited about science, expose them to the big concept idea in the seventh grade and again next year when we offer chemistry in the eighth grade.”

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“When they get to high school, they will take those more challenging Advanced Placement courses that will prepare them for careers in science,” the principal said.

The Austin Independent School District’s decision to offer the IPT course appears to be a good one.

Sixty-one seventh graders are taking the elective course team-taught by Weisgram and Fritz in two classes.

“The top students academically were chosen when they were in the sixth grade,” Fritz said.

“I think we saw a need for a class like this, in part, because of the Hormel Institute expansion,” Weisgram said. “We saw a need, especially with those families moving into Austin, whose parents had a scientific background and also with the nationwide push for scientists and engineers.

“We wanted to create a more successful physics, science and technology program here and to enhance the high school physics program” Weisgram added.

“The students who are taking this class this year will have the opportunity in the ninth grade to start off with pre-Advanced Placement biology,” Fritz said. “The ninth grade students will start with physics or honors physics.”

‘It’s designed so that students, who are interested in science, can be accelerated and end up taking AP courses when they’re in high school,” Fritz said.

Weisgram and Fritz wrote the first-ever curriculum for the IPT course.

No other Big Nine Conference school offers a similar course for seventh graders. The course, according to Weisgram, is one of a “very few in the entire nation.”

“We’re breaking new ground,” he said. “If a student can grasp this at an earlier age and begin to understand it better as they grow older, they will do a better job.”

The course is an integrated hands-on physical science class that incorporates some basic theories of physics, engineering and technology.


According to the teachers, the focus begins with a “science is fun” attitude.

Weisgram and Fritz said they try to cultivate and energize student interest in the sciences and especially physics and engineering.

To do that, Weisgram and Fritz challenge the seventh graders to “think scientifically.”

The text involves inquiry-based teaching and learning.

Presently in the first semester of the year-long course, the students are reviewing scientific process skills and the motion and forces of nature. The second semester will delve into energy transformation, electricity/magnetism and waves: Light, sound and harmonic motion.

The industrial technology component of the curriculum involves “challenges” or truly hands-on classroom exercises involving the MagLev (Magnetic Levitation) car races and NXT robots.

Weisgram likes to call the “Build a better mouse trap” exercises: Rube Goldberg challenges.

For example, an Earthquake Tower Challenge will ask the seventh graders to design and construct a tower that meets certain specifications.

Then, the students will test each tower’s structural stability on an earthquake tremor table.

That comes in the second semester. Presently, they are testing their MagLev cars.

Magnetic Levitator vehicles designed by the students travel on a magnetic track, while the students collect data and predict stopping distances.

The long-term NXT Robot Challenge goes a few steps further and incorporates how the robot’s sensors correlate with various units and functions.

The Rube Goldberg Challenge will be a large group exercise and involve energy transformations.

Fritz, an eighth grade science teacher, and Weisgram, an industrial technology (woods) teacher, seem perfectly matched to deliver the new IPT curriculum.

Both praised the Austin Board of Education for promoting the course. Weisgram said it could make the Austin school district a “spawning ground” for similar visionary courses in the future.

Although not firm, it is likely there will be an eighth grade IPT course at Ellis Middle School that will focus on a chemistry-based physics class.

“We’re talking about integrating that with plastics and metal shop as well as art,” Fritz said. “That’s essentially what we’re trying to do with physics and the wood shop in the technology department: Use the resources and mesh those two together.”

“We have less restrictions with what we’re doing in this class,” Weisgram said. “In a typical science class, the student is stuck in a classroom.”

“This way, we get the students out,” he said, waving around the wood shop classroom, “If they want to build something, they can build it.”

Fritz added, “When we were discussing how we would put this class together and how it would look like, we didn’t want it to be book-based. We wanted it to be hands-on labs with construction-type projects and challenges where they would have to apply the concepts they learned in the physics lab and put it to use in a challenge situation.”

“The idea is to mimic what engineers would see in the corporate world, where you have opposing engineering firms competing for a contract,” Fritz said.

Interest level

The “buzz” among seventh graders is the new IPT class is


“Part of this class is how well the students stay on task,” Fritz said. “If they’re interested in it, they’re going to stay on task.”

“There’s a maturity issue here, too,” he continued, “If you’re mature in the seventh grade you’re going to do all we ask, because you’re interested in what we’re doing.”

“If your immature, you may have all of the ability, but you haven’t learned to use it yet.”

“When we assess the students … we’re also observing and assessing how they interact and work in a team,” he said.

Weisgram said the students’ IPT enthusiasm is real.

“When the bell rings and they make a bee-line to get to a class” is how Weisgram measures student interest.

“We have little or no issues about students being late for the IPT class,” he said. “You can go to other seventh grade classrooms and they can’t say that.”

“That’s how I assess students’ interest in this class. They get there. They want to be here,” he said, adding, “And at the end of the class, they are still working when we tell them it’s time to clean up They don’t quit.”

What the seventh graders may not realize is they are doing ninth grade level physics work. Something both Fritz and Weisgram said they weren’t exposed to until high school.

Among the students taking the accelerated course are Erin Dankert and Michael Kroymann.

“It can be hard work, but it’s also fun,” said Kroymann.

Dankert said she liked the IPT class, because “You get to learn a lot of things with the different projects.”

Krooymann and Dankert lineup with their classmates: MagLev vehicles in hand.

More instructions come from the teachers.

“Remember,” Weisgram announces, “this is like golf: The lowest score wins.”

In IPT, the teachers and the seventh grade students are scoring ahead of their time in physics, engineering and technology.