Page prepared for SERC by Matt Nyman of the University of New Mexico.

Physical Science

Matthew Nyman

University of New Mexico

Course Size:

Course Summary

Natural Science 261L is a physical science class for K-8 pre-service teachers. The class is multi-disciplinary covering standards-based content in physics, earth science and astronomy. Lab and lecture are combined in two 2.5 hours classes. Instructional strategies include lecture, hands-on activities, demonstrations and inquiry-based research projects. In the past year, I have focused on using geology as a gateway and framework for understanding basic physics concepts and processes.

For Dr. Nyman's reflections on the course and its design, see Physical Science: Role in the Program.

Course Context:

This is a 200-level science class for K-8 pre-service teachers. Approximately 5% of the class participants are either working towards an elementary science endorsement and/or want to become middle school science teachers. In most New Mexico middle schools, Earth science is taught in 6th or 7th grade. The course combines lecture and laboratory exercises in a single 2.5 hour period. In addition to discipline specific content, the process of science is a common and recurrent theme. The inquiry model of Harwood (2004, Journal of College Teaching) is used to approximate the nature of scientific investigation.

Course Goals:

Content goals

At the conclusion of my class in Physical Science:
  • Students should be able to analyze their understanding of standards-based content in the disciplines of physics, geosciences and astronomy including evaluating changes in content knowledge.
  • Students should be able to synthesize and see correlations between concepts in each of these disciplines.
  • Students should be able to interpret different data sets including visual displays of data (maps), graphs, and raw data (such as earthquake epicenter locations).
  • Students should be able to apply skills learned in the class to addressing other science concepts through development of a scientific test.

Skills Goals

At the conclusion of my class students should gain or improve on the following skills:
  • Writing coherent and mistake free essays on scientific concepts and investigations.
  • Develop and work on metacognitive skills such as addressing preconceptions, investigating their own learning processes and promoting change where required.
  • Improve on skills related to group work.
  • Peer-teaching and oral communication

Attitudinal Goals

At the conclusion of my class I want students to have the following attitudinal changes:
  • Less fear and more wonder about science
  • More confidence in their own ability to do, understand and teach science
  • A sense of the importance of science and scientific thinking in addressing social and technological issues

Course Content:

For the past 2 semesters I have used geosciences as a gateway and framework in which to teach physics concepts and illustrate scientific thinking and process. The paradigm of Earth as a system is introduced early and supported by students making observations of a variety of data sets (shown on maps, for example gravity anomaly maps, distribution of biomes, etc.) from the different spheres. Student investigation of the theory of plate tectonics includes implementation of the activity Discovering Plate Boundaries, direct instruction, student web-based research projects and a capstone student research on earthquake magnitudes and distribution as they relate to plate boundaries. Throughout this curriculum, Earth system and plate tectonic processes are hooked to fundamental (and standards-based) physics concepts such as velocity, force, Newton's Laws of Motion, heat transfer, etc.

Teaching Materials:

Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 119kB Apr23 07)
Activity Model for Inquiry (Acrobat (PDF) 395kB Apr23 07)
Solar System Activity sheet (Acrobat (PDF) 40kB Apr23 07)

For a full example activity from this course, see Earth Observations: Pattern Recognition of the Earth System.


Assessment of student learning is completed through:
  • Laboratory reports
  • Miscellaneous writing assignments (including KWL formatted essays)
  • Grading of student presentations and projects
  • Midterm and final student portfolio (this is the major assessment piece)

References and Notes:

Conceptual Physical Science, 3rd Ed, Hewitt, Suchoki, and Hewitt
Many articles from NYTimes Science pages