Sample Assignments from Teaching at Saint Martin's Univeristy

In-Class Activities

Activities used during class-time, usually done in small groups. I like these because I can circulate amoung the groups and give help as needed. Students' first exposure to trying out the material for themselves is therefore done with me on-hand because they generally get stuck quite a bit. (Things seem easier when you read about them or watch a professor work a problem then when you try them youself.)

Monte Carlo Exercise
From Classical and Computational Mechanics (PHY 314, was 395 at the time; Spring 2014) and was performed in a computer lab. Students were to practice computational science techniques with me around to help them sort things out conceptually as they got stuck. We did one 1-hr session like this each week.
Rotational Kinematics
An example of a worksheet from General Physics (PHY 141; Fall 2015) that is similar to those from Physics 171, but with my prompts for principles and equations thrown in.
Energy, Oscillator, and Pressure
These activities are from Introductory Physics (with Calculus) I (PHY 171; Fall 2014). These are in-class exercises as part of a "flipped classroom" for intro physics. Students are required to read the text before class (and post notes and questions to Moodle before as well). In class, much of the class time is spent on activities like these, with me circulating and helping the groups. I have found that while students claim to get concepts during lecture, when simple exercises are given out like these, they get stuck. So these are valuable ways for them to realize that they need to think more about things and for me to then help them at that critical moment.
Cartooning Planet Formation
This is an in-class activity from Introduction to Astronomy. At the end of our study of planet formation, I have them re-tell the story in their own way. This exercise is useful as a summation of the unit (which itself is a cornerstone for later units) and fun for students, especially the more math-phobic students who see art is a better way to explain things.
Data, Theory, Opinion
This was used in both GenEd Physics and Intro Astronomy to get students thinking about differences between data, theories from the data, and opinions.

Writing Assignments

Writing assignments. I think writing is incredibly important for student learning (data backs this up) and — as much work as it is for me — I try to give a fair number of such assignments, especially outside of introductory courses (which tend to be a bit more focused on material and I feel leave less time for papers).

Historical Paper
This is a paper from GenEd Physics (PHY 105, Fall 2013) that was repeated twice. Since the course was focused on the history of Physics and its interplay with culture and history, the papers were intended to give students a chance to explore specific examples of this that intersected their interests.
Research Future Op/Ed
This is a paper from GenEd Physics (PHY 105; Fall 2013) intended to make students consider how to argue a case persuasively based on hard evidence.
This is a paper from Uni 101 (Fall 2014) that came at the end of our first week or so, after we read The Rule of St. Benedict and invited the Abbott to visit. Students had to write a postcard to a friend or relative talking about something that they had learned that surprised or interested them. After I read the postcards, I mailed them. The goal was to get them reflecting a bit on our monastacism and the role of faith in our community.
An opinion piece used in Introductory Astronomy as a summative exercise near the end of the term. The goal is to get students to think about what we do and do not know about the solar system, how we learn things, and how to persuade others of their position starting with data. This is the third opinion piece I require in the class. I have also included the peer review form all students are required to have filled out by two days before the paper is due to me.

Talk Assignments

In addition to writing assignments, I also believe students both need to learn to give talks and learn material better giving talks.

Fallacy Talk
is an assignment from Uni 101 (Fall 2014) that saw the students presenting on a randomly selected fallacy. This was a short talk, intended to practice a bit and also to learn something of the logical fallacies we would be watching for in units for the rest of the term.
Hoax Talk
An assignment from Uni 101 (Fall 2014) wherein students had to study a hoax or misconception and present it to their peers. It was sort of a big final project for the course, which itself was focused on what Carl Sagan dubbed our "baloney dectectors". I have also included the peer review that goes with the assignment. Every student had to two for two peers (usually the class period before their own talk).


I've had to create quite a few labs over the years. I've tried to focus on exploratory labs in most cases, letting the students experiment with a concept rather than leading them through a procedure. (This is possible to do in the lower-level lab-classes I teach since lab techniques aren't a major goal as much as learning about how science works.)

Seasons (Part 2)
This was the second half of a term-long lab to measure variations that come with season to understand why seasons happen. The main goal was to directly measure and experience the causes to understand what matters and what doesn't and then be able to explain it clearly to other non-scientists.
An introduction to spectroscopy, just as we were starting to consider its role in how we understand the universe in astronomy. One of my goals was for them to discover its power for themselves by directly observing some spectra, comparing them, and then using what they had done to determine an unknown sample. Were I to do this again, I'd make them use their own drawings to analyze the sample. (We actually did precisely this when we reused my lab in an activity for Boys and Girls Club visitors to Saint Martin's. It worked quite well.)
This was our first lab of the class and was designed to measure the circumference of the Earth. It was students' first contact with doing a science lab and I designed it in part to ease them into the experience.
Galilean Relativity
This lab was intended to introduce the concept of Galilean relativity in preparation of the later concept of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. This lab also included a significant creative component and was quite a lot of fun to see what the students came up with. The cameras were perfect for coming up with a demo since they could use them to control the audience's perspective. They also had to think a bit about Galilean relativity to come up with a good demo. All in all, I was very pleased with this one.

Homework Assignments

Although regular homework assignments are somewhat "bread and butter" in science courses, they're also some of the less interesting assignments we create. Still, I try to have some fun with them. (I have included my solutions to each of these since I think that they're also important for students.)

HW 2 and HW 2 Solutions
These come from GenEd Physics(PHY 105; Fall 2013) and shows what a non-science-major homework looks like.
Homework 3 and Homework 3 Solutions
These come from Introductory Physics (with Calculus) II (PHY 172; Spring 2015) shows an assignment for the STEM majors.
Problem Set 4 and Problem Set 4 Solutions
From Classical and Computational Mechanics (called 395 at the time, Spring 2015) shows an assignment for Physics minors.


Tests (quizzes, exams, trial by combat, etc.) are pretty much the least fun assignments to write. Or to grade, come to that. But I think that how we test students is important, so I share some of my tests here.

Quiz 6: Individual and Quiz 6: Group
From Physics 141 (Fall 2015). They include the latest in the evolution of how I approach quizzes. I've gone over to making part of the quiz a group activity. I feel that students get more formative experience from this and I can pose richer conceptual questions with less panic from the students when they have partners to talk things out with. In addition, I've observed some very solid evolution of groupwork skills from students from these quizzes since students feel much more pressure to get a right answer and thus are more likely to object more strongly when they feel their group concensus is wrong.
Exam 1
From Physics 314 (was 395 at the time, Spring 2014) and was an in-class exam intended to check students' mastery of material so far. Basically, checking to make sure everyone was keeping up so we could go on with confidence.
Exam 2
A take-home exam (see instructions) at the end of Physics 314 (was 395 at the time, Spring 2014). The purpose was a bit different at this point. The goal was to see if students had developed some skills to tackle new problems, not necessarily specific skills. So the problem is very open-ended and students are told that I just want to see them analyze it with some of our techniques, not necessarily any one specific one. It is a bit terrifying for them, but one of the goals of the course is to teach them how to deal with new, messy situations, so this is precisely what that's about. This is coupled with the Trebuchet final project as a cumulative course evaluation. (The trebuchet project accounted for much more of the final grade, by the way.) I confess, I'm ambivalent about even giving a test at this stage of the term, but I like the idea. (Which I stole from Bill Titus.)
The Trebuchet ProjectB
Also from Physics 314 (was Physics 395, Spring 2014) and is the Trebuchet project. The project was originally the ideal of Carleton College's Bill Titus and I have stolen and adapted it. It is open-ended, students can make their trebuchets arbitrarily complicated. However, they also have to model them with their new techniques, which is a natural disincentive to do so. Overall, this is a "messy" problem with no perfect solution. Students must neglect some aspects and they need to argue why they did so. There are no right answers, here, just good explanations. But it is also good fun for them and for me and I spend a lot of this part of the term going from group to group helping them individually as needed.

Weiss John