Handbook of Engaged Learning Projects

Cancer Therapy and Physics


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(Mr. Brian Wegley was part of a talented science staff at Glenbrook South High School when he created this project in 1996.) Glenbrook South High School is set in an educationally supportive and affluent community. The physics staff work in teams teaching physics to over 80% of the student population and are constantly looking for ways to use technology to empower students with the ability to apply learned concepts of physics to their lives. With this goal in mind, the physics staff has instituted a second semester project which is an engaging, student-directed project. It currently runs parallel with a traditionally formatted highly structured physics course and is preceded by many smaller, developmental projects during the first semester. The traditional nature of the class is providing the team with the opportunity to run the project parallel to existing curriculum in order to study its effects on student learning and the ability of students to meet the goals of the course. Among the goals of the course, two appear to be supported by this project. These two are that students will demonstrate the ability to:

It is the hope of the author of this project that it will be used effectively in the classroom and make a positive impact on the ability of students to learn concepts relevant to physics while being able to retain concepts, methods of learning new concepts, and the ability to apply obtained information to new situations with which they will be faced during their lives. The following scenario offers one example of one problem with which the application of physics knowledge could actually be used by any person.

It is also a hope of the author of this project that this type of engaged learning experience and use of technology will lead to an increase of this type of activity in my classroom as well as the classroom's of my colleagues.


Students have finished first semester final exams. During the first semester students have participated in several authentic mini-projects that have built their skills in knowledge-building and collaboration. Students are used to engaged learning activities that make them responsible for their own learning. Several of their projects have been viewed by Mr. Brian Wegley as application projects that act as summative evaluations and many have been formative (generative) exercises that actually generated knowledge the student retains.

The classroom has 12 Macintosh computers connected to the school's server and to the Internet via a T1 connection. Students have previously completed activities that have familiarized them with the wealth of resources on the Internet and the powerful use of technology for communication.

The physics class is in the second week of the second semester. The teacher begins the class by telling the students his father has just been diagnosed with cancer. I am very concerned about this because his chance for survival will depend upon the treatment he gets. Much of this course has been focused on the need for us to be informed decision makers. My dad needs to be one now.

"We, as my dad, need to be critical information gatherers. Putting something in print does not make it true! We need to discern the accuracy of information. This is especially true in areas of science as information can become proof by intimidation. For example, a given neutron therapy lab prints that neutron therapy doesn't work as well if it does not have access to a multi-leaf collimator."

The teacher directs a question to the students. "My dad is now a cancer patient. If you were him and your doctor gave you the above article, would you go to get neutron therapy from a therapy center that doesn't have a multi-leaf collimator?" The teacher instructs students to discuss the scenario with their partner located next to them and record their answer in their journal during the next five minutes.

While students discuss their answer, the teacher circulates around the room and listens in on each group. After he does this he jots a few notes down in his notebook about how the students are interacting and about the effectiveness of the process they are using to come to their questions. The teacher frequently keeps notes on these procedures and coaches his students toward improvement. He interacts with two groups of students on his way back to the front of the room. He finishes quickly and instructs the students to start recording their responses in their journals if they have not already done so. The room falls silent for the last few minutes while the students record their responses.

The five minutes are up, but most students are still writing. The teacher asks if one more minute will be enough to finish up their thoughts and the class suggests the need for two more minutes. At the end of two minutes, most students have come to a stop as the teacher talks to the class about several topics that came up. No students simply say, "No way would I get the treatment from a therapy center that doesn't have a multi-leaf collimator." Instead students start asking questions. The teacher invites a couple of students to record the questions on the board as they are called out. One student asks what other forms of treatment are available. Another asks what evidence is available that the multi-leaf collimator is actually better. "How many people were studied?," one student perceptively asks. Next a student says, "What is a multi-leaf collimator anyway?"

The teacher indicates that the students should keep their questions as they will break these down into questions we know answers to and those which they need to research. He thanks the student at the board for her help and continues by saying, "By the way, a multi-leaf collimator is used to focus a beam of charged particles. Does that make you look at the article differently?"

A student immediately calls out, "Mr. Wegley, neutrons are neutral aren't they?" The teacher says, "Yep! That's why they are called neutrons. What's your point?" The student said he was confused because this collimator wouldn't affect the neutron beam because it is not made up of charged particles. "How does that help with this therapy . . . I mean, all they do is shoot these neutrons into the cancer . . . right? This collimator doesn't help." The teacher affirms the students perceptions and asks the class what possible motivation a therapy lab would have for including the multi-leaf collimator since it is the only lab in the country that has one?

The discussion quickly shifts to monetary considerations. Medicine is a business also and we had better be informed consumers. The teacher reminds students of his statement about the proof by intimidation since not many people know what a multi-leaf collimator is and not many people can go to their dictionary and look it up! "This is why I am so concerned about my dad getting advice from his doctor and why I am so fired up about the Internet. It provides me with a constant means of gathering information that I may not find in my physics book!"

The teacher then shares that he was thinking about ways this class could help research his dad's cancer therapy because everything the class will study this semester will in some way empower us to be informed decision makers. During the second semester of physics, we plan on covering topics that include electricity and magnetism, the Standard Model, and wave phenomenon. Knowledge of all of these are in one way or another related to the ability to make an informed decision about my dad's therapy. The teacher asks the class if they would be interested in researching cancer therapy with him and if they would be interested in learning physics in a different way. "If we decide to study cancer therapy, we will be generating a lot of the information I would generally set up labs and homework assignments to learn and I will replace the project I had designed to accomplish the same things with this project that we will generate together and that is a real problem. We will also be practicing the most important part of this class . . . how to apply the information to a new situation. What do you think?" A few students immediately recommend that the class go forward with the study and the class decides to go forward by making this the semester project.

The teacher then gives students two articles that address the need for patients to be self-educated. Listening to a talk by Arlene Lennox first made me aware of the fact that the medical profession is a business also and that we need to be educated decision makers. The two articles are entitled, Radiation expert lauds cancer education and Different radiation forms do different cancer jobs.

Students begin reading and finish up as the class nears its end. The teacher then asks the class to come to a conclusion about their situation. The teacher writes the summary up on the board and asks one student to be the recorder. The class ends the definition of the situation as they understand it at this point and the teacher tells the student that they will be able to find this summary on the Web by the morning. He claims, "We understand very little about cancer and its relationship to physics at this time, but will redefine this situation as we learn more."

Silence fills the room for a few moments when the teacher interrupts the silence. "If I had cancer, I would want to be educated enough to decide for myself what was the best therapy. I would do the most thorough research of my life and I would search to find the pros and cons in the data and available information! There are several motivations some cancer therapy centers may have besides my dad's health and hopeful recovery. Please help me find the best answer."

The teacher continues by reviewing some comments about the Internet with the class. "Internet empowers us with the ability to find information that is not in any textbook. It provides powerful information that is weeks, days or sometimes hours old. The field of cancer therapy is a powerful application of this aspect of the Internet because much new information is available on the Internet. This new information can be accessed during an active search for up-to-date information."

The teacher continues, "A second powerful opportunity the Internet provides is the opportunity for us to ask questions of practicing doctors and experts. As we have seen, our questions usually have to be at a high level to warrant a response from experts so we have some homework to do." If the question is able to be found in your resource center, then that is where it should be found."

The class ends with one more set of directions to the class. "During the next two days, brain storm what other things you know, as well as what things you need to know in order to decide upon what form of therapy you would recommend. Place these ideas in your journals and Wednesday we will make our list and see where we go from here." The teacher reminds students that a quick search on the Internet to learn a little about salivary gland cancer would help direct their questions. He indicates that there will be a project page to which students can connect from his home page that includes the situation as well as some initial searching terms and links where students can begin to find information.

The second day of class, Tuesday, students enter the class interacting with each other and the teacher. The teacher begins class by reviewing what was discussed yesterday and informs them that they will have the class time during this day to pair up with another student and continue their search for information. He points to Net-site trail papers on the front desk that have been designed for students to record interesting sites found and reminds the class that he wants an overall record of sites students found useful. The students pair up with a partner and proceed to the computers, turn them on and enter into Netscape. The students open up the teacher's home page and open up the project page to begin their search. The teacher walks around the class guiding students and interacting with them. He learns as they learn and often records information on student information sheets of which he has a sheet for each student. Students remain engaged the entire hour and often talk with other groups around the room to see where they have been to find good information and to compare information being found.

The teacher calls the class together at the end of the day and reminds them that their journals need to have as many of the questions that were generated from this initial search together by the beginning of class tomorrow. He asks them if they would rather have a brainstorm session tomorrow or if they would like to turn their questions in to be summarized and then brainstormed. The students choose to brainstorm together citing that they believe brainstorming initially will cause more focused questions to develop. The teacher agreed and told them each to come in ready to brainstorm on Wednesday.

The students walk in the class Wednesday buzzing about the questions they have and most are claiming to have many more questions to which they do not know the answers than questions to which they do know the answers. The teacher asks John and Stacy to come to the board to record questions with known answers and unknown answers respectively. The teacher instructs each student to write up one question at a time and instructs the class that no evaluation of these questions are going to take place. We will simply write the questions down and when we are done, we will try and combine questions where appropriate and focus in on questions we want to begin pursuing.

The brainstorming occurs and a long list is generated. This process includes involvement and direction from the teacher. Students included a basic understanding of electromagnetic radiation along with many other physics terms, and the teacher added the understanding of the energy of the electromagnetic spectrum, force and acceleration, particle interaction and decay. The class combines several questions that are really asking the same thing and a list of questions to which students know the answers are generated and a list of questions for which they as a class need to research answers.

The result of the brainstorming session was many physics concepts and two general cancer therapies and many facts about the salivary gland cancer. Wednesday's class ends with the class having generated a long list of things that will need to be learned. The teacher indicates that the class should give some thought to the actual project they want to accomplish and tells them that they will decide upon the project tomorrow and points out that all the information brainstormed concepts fall into four categories: low-energy radiation, high-energy radiation, cancer facts and other physics concepts. The teacher points out that the physics concepts will be learned as we go and asked students to also give some thought to the opportunity of having the class break up into three groups to study the other three main areas.

The class enters on Thursday and the students are sharing ideas they have for the project with one another. As the bell rings, the class proceeds to define the exact outcome of this project. After much discussion the class proposes that they will do a multimedia presentation of their results for their classmates. Another student indicates that she really liked Jane's idea of putting their analysis and conclusions on the Web as Web pages and says, " The work that we do for our presentation could easily be transformed to a Web page using programs like Adobe PageMill and our projects may be helpful to anyone who may be in the shoes of Mr. Wegley's father." The teacher and the students decide upon the presentation and the Web pages and are excited that this project is intended for an authentic audience that is beyond their classroom.

The teacher informs students that they will need to create rubrics for assessment of the yet to be agreed upon parts of this project. These parts will be directed toward the completion of your projects. What are the goals of our project? After many discussions, it is decided that the project really has one main goal; the goal is the generation of a well-substantiated and communicated conclusion about the pros and cons of different cancer therapies and an ultimate conclusion of the best therapy for Mr. Wegley's dad.

After setting an overall goal, the teacher informs the students that, as in the past, the project's parts and most of their assessments have had three parts assessed by class-created rubrics:

Level 1: Each group will assess their own performance using a rubric. The group will be doing this as they construct a given portion of the project.

Level 2: Groups will also be paired up and asked to asses another group's performance using a rubric. The basic goal is the presentation of accurate information that is clear and understandable by people who are at the knowledge level of their classmates.

Level 3: Finally, the teacher will assess the the group's performance using the same rubric and will consistently assess logic and potential for continued success.

The class agrees to create rubrics as they go and then decides upon the breakdown of the project's timeline and some tentative due dates for its parts. The teacher had one set goal for the timeline and that was the final due date. He reminded them that their Web pages, to be useful to someone else, should be directed to people similar to their classmates and should include a summary of the information they found, along with graphics that would communicate information that led to their conclusions, and finally should include a conclusion that incorporates pros and cons of the different cancer therapies along with their ultimate conclusion with well-established reasons for that conclusion.

Once the format of the rubric was agreed upon, the teacher asks what the information rubric should look like. The class creates an information summary rubric, and students are asked if there are any questions. When the questions are answered, the teacher asks about breaking up into three initial groups to complete the information summary as a class. The class agrees and breaks up into three main groups: one group to study low-energy radiation therapy, one group to study high-energy radiation therapy, and one group to study the facts about the cancer.

The teacher instructs each group to break down its research into separate parts and collaborate extensively together to create an information summary on their topic area. The teacher also takes a moment to ask the students to define what goal there is for this information. The class concludes that this information summary has to be complete with information that will continue to grow and must be clear as each member from these three groups will need to share and teach their information to the other two members in their project group. One student suggests that each group, after splitting up into sub-groups, should type up their own summary using ClarisWorks to allow the group to come together at the end and create one document. The class agrees and the teacher lets them know the class will meet for initial research in the resource center during the next two days, Friday and Monday, and asks if the class wants time to put these summaries together in class. They conclude that they would and they set a tentative date for that summary compilation for one week from today, next Thursday.

The teacher asks each person to pick one group and gives each group a spot to go to in the classroom. As each group reports to their chosen area of the room, they pick up a card and after the subgroups are balanced, students are instructed to find the people in the other two groups that have the same symbol on their card. "This is your presentation group, keep checking in with them during the next two days of research to see how it is going."

The three groups meet the following two days in the resource center so that each student can access the Internet and other resources to find information. The class doesn't meet together with the exception of the beginning of the first day's class. At this time the teacher points students to their project page that gets them started with links for finding information. Each of the three groups are assigned to an area of the lab and they go to work.

There is much work occurring during these two days before and after the bell rings. The teacher facilitates the work of each group and continues to focus the groups with directive questions. An example of this is when one group found information on low-energy radiation that questioned power lines and cellular phones causing cancer. The teacher asked, "Will researching this issue help you understand your therapy?" "Well, if we understand the concern of this radiation, it may help us understand why the low-energy radiation therapy we are studying works and what physics is involved," answers a student. A second student agrees by bringing up one of the questions raised in class in the earlier brainstorming session. "We all found that there was a wide range of electromagnetic radiation and that the energy of that radiation depended upon the frequency. I didn't quite get that and this may help." The teacher agrees and asks if everyone knows what frequency is. Not many do and John volunteers presenting a clear explanation of frequency to the other group members. The teacher commends John and asks if anyone knows how energy of electromagnetic radiation is determined from its frequency. No student has seen the equation E = hf so the teacher gives some introductory tutoring and tells the students that they should keep that focus and set up a subgroup to continue that study.

The teacher concludes the two days of research as he summarizes the productive work he has witnessed in the lab. He instructs the groups to continue their research as the project continues and reminds them that they decided to summarize their research in class on Thursday. He asks if they will be ready to do that by Thursday and although they are concerned about the amount of work they think is left to do, they agree to shoot for the following Thursday.

Thursday comes and the class is given time to compile their information summaries and they print out copies after dumping them together and decide as a group how to format their summaries, correct spelling, etc. After getting a working document, each group, together with the teacher, assess the information summary with the rubric and makes improvements until they are satisfied. Susan agrees to post the information summary on the Web for the class and the class agrees to continue updating the information as more is generated.

The next day, the copies are distributed and the teacher reminds the students that the next agreed upon step is to try to find answers to generated questions with which experts can help. Students find sites that allow for questions and interactions between scientists, doctors, and students. These sites begin by students using the links on the project page, and students constantly share sites they locate with the class as well as information that has been found. The students get perspectives that neither the teacher nor located information can provide!

The semester proceeds with many activities that resemble a traditional physics class. There are notable contrasts, however, as lectures now, in conjunction with student self-learning, become discussions. Each student inputs to lectures as he or she listens and interacts. Students work problems and answer questions throughout sections as they reinforce content they are learning. The teacher sets up labs as students constantly refer learned knowledge back to their problems. Frequent reviews of new content occur as the teacher solicits student feedback on the useful connections of the content to the problem.

Between project days, the students occasionally refer back to questions about the project. For example, the subgroups ask for time to meet and compile information again and do a second draft of the information summary a couple of weeks later. Another example is when Julie came in class and said, "Mr. Wegley, I found a site on the Web that would allow other schools to find the project page we put together and would allow another school to join in our project if there was an interested school. Should we try to post our project page?" The teacher asks the class if they are interested in possibly getting others involved and everyone enthusiastically agrees to see if any other schools would enlist. "What is the name of your site Julie?" asks the teacher. Julie replies that the page was called the Global SchoolNet's Internet Projects Registry and she volunteers to register our project page.

Just as the project was getting stale, Julie's idea paid off. About two weeks later we had two responses to our project. One response was from a teacher teaching a Medical Technology class in California. He said that his students were just beginning a study on how technology has affected the fight against cancer and indicated that his class was interested in getting a similar project going, but his students did not have much background in physics. He asked if we could send him the information that the groups had gathered for the information summary. Five students, Julie included, suggested that we could post our summary on the Web and that the students could use our information and give us feedback about what they could not follow.

The feedback that we got helped the class clarify their information summary a lot. The class very actively sent us questions on e-mail about what different parts of information meant. After students pointed out that if this class couldn't follow their summary page, neither could a patient looking for information; the class took another two days in class to clean up what they had so far and tried to address many of the concerns of the other students. Many of the questions were questions about the physics terms and helped direct what the class studied. Each time the class covered a concept that answered a question, a student eagerly agreed to update the information summary. The teacher took detailed notes on how each student continually participated in the project, because different outcomes were being met all the time.

The second class connection was a middle school's 8th grade health class that was interested in doing a scaled-down version of the project and that teacher was interested in using our students as resources for his students. The teacher asked for students from each of the subgroups who might be interested in taking some time to answer e-mail questions from the 8th graders of this middle school and virtually all the students were interested as they each had e-mail accounts at the school that they could access through the resource center's computers on their own time. Many good questions were asked by the 8th graders, and many of the questions caused the students to research something a little further before responding. The teacher asked two things of the students who participated in this. He asked them for a description of themselves they could send to the middle school along with a few sentences indicating how they think they could be most helpful to that 8th grade class. The second thing he asked is that they save the questions they were asked in a file along with copies of their responses on a file that they could continually dump into Mr. Wegley's folder so he could keep track of how much help they were giving this class. As it turned out, there was a lot of interaction as this middle school had adequate access to the Internet and e-mail also.

As the class proceeded with the semester, much of the learned information continued to be requested by students. One example occurred in the middle of the class's study of static electricity; a student came in class and said, "I found a source on the Internet about how neutron therapy is actually a showering of particles into the tumor. I didn't follow that; could we talk about that today?" The teacher said that he hoped that would come up and commended the student for finding that great information. "Has anyone else found anything about that?," he said. No other hand went up in the class. He asked if students had heard of E = mc2? All students had heard of the equation, but few had a clue as to what it meant. The teacher asked if others had interest in pursuing this question and many enthusiastic yes answers came back. The teacher told the students that they had a new assignment for the night and told them to find as much as they could find. He proceeded to put his lesson for the day to the side and gave a mini-discussion on some concepts he felt students should know to perform a reasonable search. He instructed the students to check his home page for high-energy physics connections to get started on their search. One such connection he explored in class with the class to direct his discussion. This link was a series of pages by CPEP entitled The Particle Adventure that is an interactive tour of high-energy physics. The discussion lasted the next two days as the class discussed showering as caused by collisions between high-energy neutrons and nucleides of human tissue. Many concepts were discussed about high-energy collisions and most of the information came from students.

As the semester proceeds, the teacher constantly probes for evidence that each student can demonstrate a level of proficiency with each of the defined areas of content. Since engaged learning offers many opportunities for student demonstration of content proficiency, many observable opportunities for students to demonstrate content proficiency arise. Throughout the semester, project days are sprinkled in that provide time for students to work on their problem. When the teacher sees one student teach another student about how the energy of electromagnetic radiation depends upon the frequency of that radiation, the teacher checks off that particular content goal for that student.

The semester continues as the students accomplish each part of their study, continually learn content directed to a problem, and continually update and correct, and assess their project parts on all three-level assessments and ends up with the presentation of each group during the last week of school. The projects are filled with evidence of applied learning and the groups share their conclusions which are not all the same. Students ask directed questions to other students during presentations and constructively challenge the rationale for conclusions formed. Some groups successfully defend their conclusions and some revise them based upon debate. Students always, however, end up with an informed decision and share the pros and cons of the treatment and what they would recommend for Mr. Wegley's dad.

Once the presentations are done and evaluated using the conclusion rubric and the presentation rubric, the students publish their conclusions and literature search on the Web. Each group publishes their page with their pictures on the top and class time is spent at the end of the semester going through the projects posted by the other high school. They critique our pages and give us feedback for improvement and we do the same for them. The students have learned physics and demonstrated their ability to apply the knowledge they have gained to come to a real-world decision.

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Created: July 23, 1996 - Last Updated: July 23, 1999
URL: http://www-ed.fnal gov/help/wegley/class.shtml