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Conceptual Physics during remote learning: challenging concepts, simple connections

It’s the first class of the day, the first day of the second semester, and Billy Abdallah is instructing his ninth-grade Conceptual Physics class from his backyard. He checks in with each student one by one—his tone energetic, his gestures expressive. He’s beginning a new unit on motion, which he knows is often a tricky topic for first-time physics students. He introduces the topic of mechanical equilibrium in a way the entire class can readily understand. He asks each freshman about her “ideal day,” listening and responding, encouraging everyone to understand their own personal sense of what equilibrium is, before moving on to the scientific definitions.
Soon enough, Mr. Abdallah is discussing forces and vectors, tension and weight, and will lead the class as they do simple equations measured in newtons. The subject material is advanced and could be potentially intimidating for young learners, but Mr. Abdallah bypasses both apprehension and anxiety by putting this Zoom room of near-strangers at ease. ”He always finds a way to make the lesson fun...and he always talks to us and makes us feel comfortable,” explains Natalie Grohs ’24. 

It’s clear that the way Mr. Abdallah conducts his course doesn’t just make students feel comfortable with him, but with each other too. “My favorite thing about Mr. Abdallah’s class...is how he makes us feel that we are in-person even though we are not,” says Elisa Milkie ’24. Building community is no small feat during remote learning, particularly when the subject material is academically rigorous. But, although many of these freshman students have never met in real life, they’re building bonds—and deep knowledge—through hands-on activities and discussions.

In fact, Mr. Abdallah offers such a wide variety of interactive projects that his students can’t settle on a favorite. Sarah Brennan ’24 mentioned the lesson on optical illusions, Ella Moriarty ’24 liked the presentations on light and color, and multiple students nominated the virtual hockey competition, which illustrated how protons and neutrons work. “This activity brought camaraderie...which is difficult to do online, but Mr. Abdallah does activities like that which brings us closer as a class,” explains Danica Bachman ’24.  

When it comes to class assignments, Mr. Abdallah tries to let his students take the lead whenever possible. “I don't know how each person learns individually,” he says. “And I think that giving them options for how they want to complete their work or trying different things about what might work for them, is so important.” He allows them to work alone, with a partner, or even in small groups. Because he strongly believes it’s an invaluable time for students’ self-knowledge, where they can learn their own best study patterns and techniques.

And Mr. Abdallah has his own favorite assignments, like the “mock concert,” where he asks students to assume the role of a famous musician (including adopting a stage name), throw a mock concert in their dream venue, and play the music on an instrument they built themselves. He sneaks the scientific research element in by having students create posters with infographics explaining how sound is created and how sound and vibrations connect. This in-depth project was clearly labor-intensive, yet most of the students submitted it before the deadline. And watching a wall of FlipGrid videos, where students gleefully pretend to be rock stars with bongos made of Pringles cans and ukuleles made of cardboard, the sheer joy of this learning opportunity is unmistakable.

“Starting Mayfield online was definitely not what I envisioned, and I did not know what to expect from any of the classes,” says Danica. “However, from the beginning, physics has been phenomenal and it easily became my favorite class...you can really see the attention to detail [Mr. Abdallah] gives each student and the level of comfort he has instilled throughout his class, which has made the transition much easier.”

Student enthusiasm for virtual labs has been a pleasant surprise, even to Mr. Abdallah. “I would have never thought that they would have enjoyed simulations, building things on a screen and being able to analyze data that way. But they love it!” he says.

Although Mr. Abdallah is in his first year at Mayfield, and still early in his teaching career, he has gained a deep appreciation of the Holy Child philosophy and has intuitively tapped into the most essential Holy Child teaching objectives: helping students discover their gifts.

“This class has definitely given me confidence in science,” says Natalie, a refrain that is common among her classmates. Ella describes the way she feels empowered by the class, in spite of the rigor, “I think being a girl interested in STEM can be discouraging at times, but that feeling is never present in this class,” she says. “We also spend so much time working on challenging concepts so we feel really comfortable with what we are learning.” 

This pandemic has been full of unexpected trials, for students, teachers and parents alike. But if the students of Mr. Abdallah’s Conceptual Physics classes are any indication, an indomitable sense of community, creativity and collaboration persists inside our Mayfield family. And this may serve as a reminder that it is the simple, human connections that are often a large part of solving even the most daunting challenges.
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.