Langaran’s Exploring Pedagogy – CSI Style

In Langara’s Advanced Teaching Seminar, Langara instructors write a fictional story in the first person, highlighting, “some kind of ‘problem’, or challenge, or dilemma, or puzzlement”[1] they have experienced in their teaching practice. The “story will, at some level, be a partial description of the landscape of good teaching (even if the teaching in the story itself isn’t – on the face of it – seen as ‘good’).  A story is a snapshot of what good-and-improving teachers sometimes experience in their practice.”[2] Woven informally into each story are the concepts and phrases pulled from various assigned course readings (see references). 

For more information about the Advanced Teaching Seminar or to inquire about registering, e-mail Carolyn Wing, Educational Development Coordinator at TCDC (

[1] Musson, 2017.
[2] Musson, 2017.

Our first submission: Richard’s CSI Story…….

CSI (Crash Scene Investigation) is an activity that I use in my PHYS 1118 class (Physics 12 equivalent) as an attempt to convey some of the “great things” of the field of Physics. Unfortunately, the activity has fallen flat a few times now. Of course, that happens every so often “in the arena”. As I continue to adjust it, I can see the potential slowing showing through the thicket.

First, a little bit of rationale: Teaching first-year physics, I go in with the realization that the vast majority of the students will not be physics majors. Students are required to take this course for other programs.

Nonetheless, being exposed to physics has an integral part in their education, scientific or otherwise.

Typically, the curriculum covers motion and electromagnetism; these have been worked out 300 and 100 years ago, respectively. These have been so well incorporated in everyday objects that there are few surprising results and lacks that spark of wonder. The deeper purpose is not so much the “what” of physics, but the “how” of physics. Years from now, students will forget the specific form of the formulae (was it v or v square?), my higher aim for the course is they will still have the attitude that the world can be modelled and understood, that they see the value of physics in the world.

The great things that we can offer first-years is not the practice with physics formulae or the math, but it is the attitude that real life situation can be reduced to a model, and that we can make meaningful prediction and analysis with this model. Physicists strips away the irrelevant details to make a model simple enough to analyze, but still close enough to the real situation in the relevant ways to given meaningful results that applies to the real situation.

This attitude of being able to quantitatively model the world, this insistence that a fuller understanding can be achieved by applying quantities that can be tested in ever more exotic experiments and observations, is a large part of the great things that physics has to offer. Modelling and analysis, of course, applies to all science, physics has the benefit of being more purely focused on this type of analysis and presents it earlier on.

As stated in Bain, “the best teachers assume that learning has little meaning unless it produces a sustained and substantial influence on the way people think, act, and feel.”

It is not easy to achieve deep attitude change. Many of my attempts have fallen flat.

Throughout the course, I try to emphasize the use of physics in real situations by choosing problems and questions that is based on situations students have likely encountered in their lives. Each problem is a mini-story. We call these “context-rich” questions. There is a situation being described, often with too much information.

I turn the context to the max for the CSI activity, presented half-way through the course. This is culminating point of the units on motion before we switch into electromagnetism. I apply concepts from all the units on motion into analysing a car crash.

To provide sufficient context, I put together a slideshow named “Crash Scene Investigation (CSI)”; the first slide is shown at the beginning of this post; though that reference is a bit dated now. I present them with a folder with various paper that I had labelled a “confidential case file”. In the case file, students will find witness testimonies, descriptions of the crash scene, and diagrams of the crash scene.

They can discuss and work on it in groups, to pool together their ideas. The hope is that they see the models learnt have use in a real-life situation, and then they practice stripping away the irrelevant details, look up missing information, and apply their model to come up with a quantitative reconstruction of the crash, with the ultimate aim of assigning fault of the accident. I also made available hot wheel cars to re-enact the accident. Initially, this activity was done over two 1-hour sessions so they have plenty of time to think it through between the session.

To my dismay, the first term I have done this, it did not go so well. After I presented the information and questions to be answered, I let them start working. After a brief session of chatter, all but one or two top students in the class were completely frozen. They would stare at the page not knowing what to do.

They simply could not see where they need to end up, how to get there, or even to start pulling apart the massive load of information. They just see a mess, a mess that they cannot tease apart. A mess that crushes their spirit and puts them further away from the attitude of being able to model situations. By the second session, most groups have lost the sheets. I had set the bar too high.

The second time, to get them started, I added a sheet of guiding questions, so it is more similar to tradition types of problems that they have seen in the course. However, many students ended up jumping to the questions without taking the time to fully grasp the situation.

They fall back to their bad habit of trying to jam numbers and equations together. Without properly understanding what is relevant and irrelevant about the accident, they cannot see how the information on the pages can be used to get the answers.

In the end, I mostly ended up showing them the full solutions, working out all the steps in front of them. I know this was not optimal, my espoused theory of learning is a constructivist one. Only by doing, not watching, can the steps become meaningful to the students. Only by seeing that they themselves can do this will they come to believe that modelling is a useful process to them, and not reserved to a few selected experts.

This term, I was a little nervous running it again, as previous attempts have felt like poor use of class time. I felt like I was cheating my students. I forced them to slow down. Instead of showing them the list of questions to answer so they try to jump to the formula right away. I broke the slide show up into a series of pauses for discussion.

  • First, I would ask them to play with the toy cars for a few minutes to visualize the accident, based on the witness descriptions and the final look of the crash scene.
  • Next, I would ask them to identify the useful and not useful information in the case. After that, I asked them to classify the forces, which is the key factor in deciding which model to employ.

To my surprise, the groups were engaged!!

Even if they did not have a good handle on the physics analysis. The students were engaged to play with toy cars and to read through the case details. Slowing down and sharing as a class gave each of the groups time to think about and checkpoints to keep them on the path.

Unfortunately, the discussions ate up more time and the students did not have time to work out the final numerical answer. We had to end it after discussing how to set up the model. This was still more instructive I feel. At least they had practice engaging with the situation. They had sieved through the large amount of information and identified the model to employ.

With this partial success, and the reflection through story-telling, I am inspired to work on it again the next time I teach this course. One of the ideas being considered is to turn it into a marked project to properly incentivize student efforts, especially that I have a reasonable way to scaffold and guide them into the correct setup. With the marks, I can double-down and expand the submission into a fuller written report, similar to testimony submitted by expert witness, pushing the assignment to the next level.

The end goal is worth shooting for, as it gives the students a chance to walk in the shoes of an “expert”, in modelling a complex situation, coming up with quantitative results, and using that to make a statement that potentially have visible outcome on the world.

This story was written by Richard Wong of Langara’s Physics Department


  • The Skillful Teacher (Brookfield, 1990)
  • The Courage to Teach (Palmer,1998)
  • What the Best College Teachers Do (Bain, 2004)
  • Excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship In A Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910
  • Action Theory: Increasing Professional Effectiveness in College Teaching (Musson,2015)
  • A Community of Practice And Your Professional Development (Musson, 2015)
  • Of Telos, Teaching, and Great Things (Musson, 2015, 2017)
  • Practical Wisdom (Schwartz and Sharpe, 2010)