Scheming with Schema…

When teaching physics before, I found the process of building free body diagrams with students to be a fairly smooth process. It took a lot of feedback to get there, but they way I introduced the topic was along the lines of the chart below:

This chart was based on one I had from my own physics notes taken during class with Mr. Bob Shurtz who influenced me both as a student (helping me explore the love of physics and engineering I didn’t know I had beforehand) and then as a colleague while designing my own AP Physics course in the Bronx.

I held students to the requirement in the beginning that every time they constructed a FBD they must make one of these charts because my feeling was it would help both in identifying the important forces acting on a single object and in discussions of Newton’s 3rd law. The students grumbled as they tend to do when we expect them to use organization scaffolds like this that they feel they don’t need. As time went on and FBDs were drawn correctly, I would loosen that requirement to the point that students were drawing diagrams and, minimally, felt guilty if they weren’t at least thinking to make sure all of those forces could be identified. Those charts were admittedly annoying, but I felt they at least got students in the right mindset for drawing free body diagrams, so it was a good thing to require.

When my fans on carts exploration with the students went long last week, I decided to push the introduction of FBDs to this past Monday. We did have time last week to talk out different types of forces (normal, gravity) so they at least had some ideas of what different forces could be included in the chart. This extra time gave me the weekend to take a closer look at Modeling Instruction, and more specifically, at the concept of drawing system schema. I had never heard this term, but it appeared all over the modeling literature, so I decided to take a closer look at the Arizona State University site on modeling where I found an excellent paper that details using them as part of the FBD development process. It seemed harmless enough. Worst case, it would be a scaffold like the chart I mentioned earlier, used in the beginning and then taken away over time.

It was especially lucky that shortly after reading this, Kelly O’Shea had posted an excellent guide on how she introduces the Balanced Force Particle model to her class. It seemed like such a natural way to analyze problems, so I introduced it to the class as part of drawing free body diagrams for the first time on Monday.

Some really interesting things happened during that class and during Wednesday’s class that deserve to be shared here. First, I was impressed how naturally students took to the idea of drawing the schemata. Not a complaint in the room.
They shared with each other, pointed things out, and quickly came to an agreement of what they should look like.
It was incredibly natural for them to then draw a dotted circle around the object they were analyzing and see the free body diagram nearly jump out at them. The discussions about directions and what should be in the diagram were matter of fact and clear with virtually no input from me. Score one for the schema.

The second thing that came up during class on Wednesday was in discussing a homework problem about a bicycle moving down a hill at constant speed due to a drag force of magnitude cv. The schema that one student had put together looked something like this:

The students were wondering how they would combine the friction from the ground and the air drag force into one to use the given information.

I was floored – after giving this problem for four years in a row, this was the first time the students even thought to think of anything about the friction on the ground. They decided to neglect this force after we thought about whether drag force had anything to do with the ground, but the fact that we even had this discussion was amazing and really shows the power of the schema to get students to think about what they are doing.

The final thing the class pointed out was an inconsistency that had again never even occurred to me. On Wednesday, we were looking at the following sketch as part of a kinetic friction problem:

The block was moving at constant velocity across a surface with coefficient of friction of 0.7. I asked the students to draw a schema, FBD, and figure out what the magnitude of the force F must be. They started working on their schemata, but then had these uncomfortable looks on their faces shortly afterwards.

Looking at the diagram, they had no problem identifying the effects of the entire earth and the ground, and they were fairly sure based on the situation that drag was not an important part of it. The thing they really didn’t know how to handle was that disembodied force F.

What object was causing it? Where was it coming from? How in the world could they include it in the diagram if they didn’t know what interaction was governing its presence?

At this point in previous years, students didn’t generally mind that random forces were being applied to blocks, spheres, or other random shapes – they just knew that they had to do a sum of the net force in x and y and solve for unknowns in the problem. In the context of the schema, however, the students were clearly thinking about the situation in exactly the way I had taught them to do and were genuinely concerned that there was no clear source of this force. This goes back to the fact that they were seeing the system schema as a representation of real objects, which is really what we want students to be doing! I had never thought about this before, but it was so amazing to know that they were having these thoughts on the second day of meeting the free body diagram.

We agreed on the spot, given my omnipresent power as a physics teacher, that any time a force appeared in a problem diagram that had no clear source, that it had to be because of an interaction with me, and they could include me in the schema to indicate that interaction. For the purposes of satisfying their newly found need for a source for every force (a possible catch phrase for schemata?) they now have permission to do this in their schemata.

I admit that my students in the past have gotten away with abstracting the process of equilibrium problems into barely more than a math problem. That capability has still gotten them to analyze some interesting situations and pushed them to explain phenomena that they observe in their own lives. Still, the way using the schema changed our conversations over the past couple days is an impressive piece of evidence in favor of using them.

In short? I’m sold. I’ll take twenty.

3 thoughts on “Scheming with Schema…

  1. I don’t like the idea of a “source” for a force. It makes it sound like something can “have” force and then give it to something else. But really a force is an interaction between two objects. And the interaction isn’t singularly directional. Both objects experience the interaction (a 3rd law force pair being a single line on the system schema is particularly powerful when you get to that point… I do it at the end of balanced forces when they are already pros at making system schemas and FBDs).

    These diagrams are also super useful when you do conservation laws. Just draw the dashed line around the entire system and easily see internal interactions vs external interactions.

    1. Hi Kelly,

      I completely agree – all the more reason why these random forces that ‘appear’ on problems from textbooks (and from my own old problem sets, unfortunately) don’t make sense. To really jive with the real idea that forces are interactions between objects, there must be another object involved when these forces appear. I’m not saying it won’t ever happen again on problems. I am just really energized by the fact that the students called me out on this inconsistency on Day 2 while it wasn’t even a discussion in my previous classes.

      1. Yeah, the same issues come up for my students. They usually try to imagine what kind of force it must be. It is usually a tension force, so the object usually ends up being a rope. 🙂 But now you’re seeing the power of thinking with models! 🙂

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