Investigating Our World, PHY107
Spring 2017

Instructor: Dr. David R. Burgess
Schedule: Office hours are posted on my door.
Office: ST239 (Near the front door, across the road from the Dion Center.)
Phone: 603-897-8264 (office)
Internet: PHY107 Homepage (
Textbook: No printed textbook is required for this course. Course content is on the website.

Class Philosophy

This class focuses on the process of investigation in science by having students actually participate in, identify, and practice the process of investigating common scientific phenomena. The course is not so much content driven, but focuses on the way that we engage with and investigate the world around us. It is more concerned with how we learn and not so much on actual science content knowledge. The whole course is about students setting up experiments, collecting data, and interpreting the data.

This course satisfies the physical science requirement for those wishing to teach in the Elementary school and every attempt will be made to keep the course relevant to those students. This will include some discussions and homework assignments directed toward that field of study and activities that can be easily adapted to the elementary classroom. This is first, however, a college course taken to satisfy part of the science requirement in the core curriculum. All assignments will be evaluated according to the college standards associated with the core curriculum.

As a core course satisfying general education requirements, a significant amount of integration of basic skills from other areas will be done. You will need to draw on basic communication skills, basic reasoning skills, and basic mathematical skills. The core curriculum is established by the college and is an important part of your education, independent of your major, and this course can help develop those skills that are emphasized in the core curriculum. The physical sciences also provide an excellent opportunity to develop the college-wide competencies listed on the page titled Academic Assessment at Rivier College that go hand-in-hand with the core curriculum. These are basic and should be kept in mind as the course develops. In addition, you should acknowledge that whether the class is interesting or not depends mostly on you and that the class provides the framework for your own learning, not a substitute for it.

Class Meetings

There will not be "lectures" in this class. The class time will be spent doing investigations in small groups. Except for the first couple of days, there will not be scheduled lectures in this class so all class meetings will be "hands-on" with some discussion, but mostly it will be real investigations! The whole course is about students setting up experiments, collecting data, and interpreting the data. You will often be given some materials and asked to investigate something without intervention from the instructor. You will be expected to try things on your own in small groups. We will use an inqiry learning cycle model for some structure, but it is just explore, investigate, and think about what our data tells us. If you aren't comfortable with this, you should consider taking a different class where that isn't the case. You could consider PHY101, Introduction to Physical Science, which is a similar course, but does not require the students to develop their own experiments.

If a member of the group is missing it will put the rest of the group at a disadvantage and the missing person will not be able to make up the lab without causing several people a lot of trouble, if it can be made up at all. It is also important that everyone be present for whole group sharing. If you can't commit to being at every class throughout the whole semester, consider taking a different class!

Since the class meeting will be completely filled with experimentation, students are expected to be in class every day and to fully participate in the class activities. This will require collaboration with group members and being willing to think of things to try and fulfill tasks, even when they may seem repetitive or routine. Investigations require multiple trials of the same experiment and you must be willing to take the time to do a thorough job. During our time together we need to fully participate in the current activity, be focused on science, and not be distracted by outside influences.

Some of the investigations that we do will be on topics that you have seen before. In the schedule you will find things like density, pendulums, balls rolling down ramps, conservation of energy, etc. If you think you know everything about these topics, this is not the course for you. In this course you will need to work hard at thinking about the process of investigation and be willing to enthusiastically engage in developing and doing the investigations. Staying in this course means that you are willing to do this.

The class is scheduled to meet three times a week for this 4-credit, integrated laboratory course. Students will be required to meet in person during the scheduled times for laboratory activities. In addition to the scheduled class times, most science courses require 2-3 hours outside of class for every hour in class. That would be between 12 and 16 hours per week for this course. On average it is expected that you will spend at least 10 hours per week outside of class on this course.

In this course a few of the class meeting times will be scheduled to be done online.

These online days are noted on the course schedule (Fridays after the first four weeks). Assignments for those days will be due by the end of the scheduled class time. It is suggested that these online assignments be started before the scheduled class time in order to ensure that they can be completed before the end of the scheduled class period.

The instructor will be available in person during the scheduled online times to help with the online assignments or other class assignments. He will also have additional office hours posted on his door.

Course Components and Grading

The course will have five components, each contributing toward the final grade as indicated below.

  1. In-class activities, 20%: Undertaking investigations that allow practice of the science inquiry learning cycle in small groups, the constructing of posters that describe the investigation, and participation in collaborative assessment conferences. Evaluated by attendance and participation in class. These activities will include:
    1. Exploration and identification of a question to further investigate.
    2. Development of an experiment and collection of data.
    3. Presentation of a visual representation of data with uncertainty.
    4. Development of tentative results and predictions based on the experimentation.
    5. Creation of a poster summarizing the investigation.
    6. Participation in whole group discussion using a Collaborative Assessment Conference (CAC) protocol that has been developed for looking at inquiry and student learning. See CAC Protocol in the main menu.
  2. Writing individual reports on the investigations, 25%. Each student will write their own report. See the Report Format page. Each report should inlcude:
    1. A description of the exploration phase and at least two questions that you did not use.
    2. A statement that includes the variables that were identified and the question that was settled on for experimentation.
    3. A description of the experiment and data collected.
    4. An explanation of how the experiment related to the question. How could the data help to answer the question?
    5. The tentative answer to the question and how it follows from the data (include uncertainty).
    6. A discussion of how your answer to the question (your result) relates to previous experience and to what scientists think.
    7. Possible predictions and next steps to better understand or extend the question.
  3. General homework, 15%: Online assignments emphasizing the inquiry learning cycle to help students become acquainted with issues related to the teaching and learning of science.
  4. Science content homework, 25%: Working through online assignments to enhance science content knowledge. Each student will individually submit these assignments. The first submission of online homework will count toward the grade.

    Points for the Online Content Homework will be determined with the review homework (multiple choice) counting twice as much as the individual submissions (text boxes) in the following way.

    1. The percent of responses to the individual questions through out the module will be determined and divided by 10. That will result in a maximum of 10 points.
    2. The percent of correct responses on the review homework will be determined, doubled and then divided by 10. That will result in a maximum of 20 points.
    3. These will be added together for each module, resulting in a score out of 30 as indicated on the Canvas assignment page and on the Canvas grade page.
  5. Engaging in a final project to develop and carry out a new investigation that includes all of the components of our inquiry learning cycle, 15%.
    1. Should be done in small groups as assigned.
    2. Requires an investigation, a poster and a report.
    3. See the Final Project page for more information.

A student who earned 85% for in-class investigations, 83% for the laboratory reports, 80% for the final project, 87% for the general online homework and 85% for the online science content homework would calculate their grade to be:

(.20)(85) + (.25)(83) + (.15)(80) + (.15)(87) + (.25)(85) = 84.1

and they would receive a B for the final grade.


Homework assignments will be given and graded on a regular basis as stated in the class schedule. There are written assignments that are to be handed in during class (mostly laboratory reports) and there are also assignments that will be completed online. Each student is individually responsible to get, understand and complete the assignments on time, even when working in groups or when absent. You are encouraged to help each other understand the material covered in class, but don't hand in identical papers or lab reports. Identical homework is a form of plagiarism and cheating and will be handled according to the academic honesty policy. Late assignments will be penalized two points after three total instances of being late (all late assignments, including the original three will be penalized). All written assignments should be done on a word processor.

All of the homework assignments that are to be handed in, with their due dates, are shown on the course schedule. These are also available in Canvas. Feedback and the grades for each assignment will be given. The paper assignments will be returned with comments and the online assignments will have feedback in a return email. The numerical grades can also be viewed in Canvas.

Academic Policies

A link to Academic Policies at Rivier and for this class can be found on our homepage. On our class policy page ( specific statements have been extracted, from the policies common to all undergraduate courses at Rivier College (, will open in a new tab), on Attendance, Habitual Non-Attendance, Academic Assessment, Academic Honesty, Classroom Behavior, Electronic Devices and Students With Disabilities. You are expected to be familiar with these policies and adhere to them.


Attendance is mandatory for this class and penalties will be given for missing class. If you can't commit to being at every class for the whole semester, don't stay in the class! No penalty will be given for the first two absences. After two absences 10 points will be deducted from the total of 100 for every absence. The number at the end of the semester will then contribute to the 20% of the overall grade described in number one above. Taking off 10 points will be the procedure up to where the habitual non-attendance policy kicks in at three weeks (in our case nine days). After missing nine days, this part of the grade will automatically go to zero. Note that there are no excused absences, as indicated in the habitual non-attendance policy.

Tentative Topic Outline/Course Content

  1. Inquiry Learning Cycle - Box Stopping at the Edge
  2. Electricity - Squishy Circuits
  3. Density
  4. Numbers and Uncertainty
  5. Pendulums
  6. Balls and Ramps
  7. Torque
  8. Conservation of Energy
  9. Light and Color

There is a more detailed course schedule which includes homework due dates under Course Schedule in the menu. The link on this page will open in a new tab (or window).

Students enrolling in this course should expect to be confronted with physical situations that are easy to see, but may be counter-intuitive, a challenge, or presented to them in an unusual way. Sometimes students will be challenged to do a specific task in a limited time frame. This helps to identify variables and think about what kind of information is needed to understand the physical phenomenon.

Sometimes students will be given some materials and asked to explore and figure out what the variables might be. After identifying their own question they will be expected to come up with and perform an experiment that could answer their question. It may seem that the students are left on their own, but that is how we come to know the work of a scientist. There will be a broad investigation "structure" that we will call the inquiry learning cycle as a guide, but the details of what to do during each investigation will be generated by the students. This results in what some educators call an "authentic" investigation where the student is working on their own question and not forced to investigate a question generated by the instructor.

Doing these activities provides practice with the process that scientists go through and solidifies the structure of the inquiry learning cycle. The inquiry learning cycle, however, is about the process of figuring something out and not about learning or coming to know science content by following a logical path.

The content of this course, then, is the process of learning science. Obtaining and working with data is an important part of this process, so we will also spend a lot of time thinking about data and the role of data in learning. If you are not comfortable with the idea of the course content being the process of learning and that students are expected to develop their own investigations or if you are only interested in learning science content, you should consider taking a different course.

Student Learning Outcomes

Students will be able to:

  1. Recite the phases of the inquiry learning cycle.
  2. Describe and implement an exploration, including the launch.
  3. Discover questions associated with physical phenomena.
  4. Develop an experiment to determine the influence of a variable on an observed physical characteristic.
  5. Carry out their own experiment collecting and organizing data.
  6. Present data in multiple formats.
  7. Identify trends from data.
  8. State the result of an experiment.
  9. Determine and discuss the uncertainty related with a result.
  10. Put their experiment into context and suggest new questions that arise from the experiment.
  11. Describe the difference between exploring and experimenting.
  12. Develop and carry out an inquiry learning activity.


This course doesn't require a paper textbook, but there will be content online that has been developed for this course. You will need access to a computer with a resolution of at least 1024x768 that can get to the internet. An up-to-date version of a modern browser (Firefox, Edge, Internet Explorer, etc.) is required. You must also be willing to accept cookies from