Collaborative Classroom Enhances Physics Program at NMH

The trailer for the Will Smith film Concussion is screening in a new collaborative learning space in Cutler Science Center. Like Smith’s character, the physics students in this classroom today are being asked to apply scientific evidence to an ethical decision. Then they must defend their choice on both ethical and scientific grounds. 

The students pull up navy and lime green chairs around clustered tables and discuss the assignment in small groups. Soon, ideas appear on laptop screens and whiteboards as responses are crafted.

A new kind of group learning is the goal of what has been dubbed by some on campus as the “collaboratory.” This large classroom space was recently renovated — funded by former NMH Board of Trustees Chair Stephen S. Fuller ’58, P’98 — to model collaborative teaching and learning. 

Teacher Seth Hansell works with one group while the other two teachers lead different activities in the collaborative learning center.

“By working with my fellow classmates and teachers, I am learning more,” says Julia Rubright ’22. “In the collaboratory, I learn not only from my own mistakes but also from my classmates’ mistakes. It is also easier to have one-on-one conversations with teachers and small-group discussions.” Tristan Keyser-Parker ’22 says the collaboratory "makes it easier to work together with other students on the labs since it is a space made specifically for that purpose."

Instead rows of fixed lab tables and individual desks, the new space makes collaboration natural with movable white boards, new tables that slide easily into different configurations, and room for multiple activities to take place simultaneously.

Classes are team-taught, with two or three teachers circulating among the regular and honors-level physics students. On one test-review day, David Reeder P’15, ’17 gave an outline of the class session, then students formed their own sub-groups for 20-minute mini-rotations.

Each teacher took a different tack. In one area, Tabatha Collins ’92, P’21 helped students with formulas for applying Newton’s second law. Reeder drew a concept map of the “nature of forces and interactions.” And Seth Hansell P’21 worked individually with students on the topics of impulse and momentum.

During the same class period, students huddled to compare the results of a recent lab experiment that involved dropping water balloons from various heights. Each group used Newtonian principles to engineer a container they hoped would keep the water balloon from breaking. Then they collected data about how well their design worked. One group named its balloon and titled its report “The Flying Dutchman and Its Grand Fall.”

This combination of students and activities results in a lively and productive academic experience. “In every class, students can choose two or three activities — such as worksheets, experiments, and small-group discussions — that aim for the same understanding,” said Hansell. “In every class, students can go at their own pace, and each of us [teachers] works with every student multiple times a day.”