By Ondria Wassem, PhD - WSP Middle School Math Instructor and Alumni Parent
As children grow into adolescence through their middle school years, they move from learning imaginatively, inspired by the love and trust they feel for the adults around them, to learning through critical thinking and growing awareness of the world around them. They notice that the adults around them make mistakes, so can they trust what they are told? How do they know what's true? By bringing scientific topics to them through sense-based experiences, the students learn to closely observe a phenomenon and the conditions that produced it. Seeing, hearing, and feeling for themselves the conditions and their manifestation, they can reason out the relationships in the physical world for themselves. The students discuss their observations and thoughts with their peers and teacher, who at that point is guiding a thinking process rather than presenting facts to the students. Ultimately, the group expresses the new concept, including the context in which it is true, through words and drawings. That is how they know what's true, and learn to trust their own senses and their own thinking, at an age when they question or mistrust adults.
Why do we teach electromagnetism in 8th grade in particular? By 8th grade the student is ready to understand more subtle relationships within phenomena, but there is another developmental reason.The 8th grader is on the verge of a period of intense social development during high school and the remainder of adolescence. As social beings, we interact, respond to, and are susceptible to each other. We change each other's thinking, feelings, and behavior when we are open to each other. In short, through interacting we "induce" changes in one another. Prior to 8th grade, the students have studied electricity, and they have studied magnetism. They have gotten a feel for the character of electrical phenomena and the character of magnetic phenomena, but not their interaction. In 8th grade, through the study of electromagnetism, the students experience electric currents inducing a magnetic field. Although these forces are invisible, the students can observe the manifestation of this induction, and through repeated observations under various conditions they can infer the relationships and come to the concepts. Further, the students have the opportunity to build a working electromagnetic motor, seeing how the induction of a magnetic field by an applied current results in motion. Activity happens through this interaction and work can be accomplished! The analogies to social interaction abound. They are not stated, but studying this phenomenon resonates with the development of students at this age.
Ondria Wasem received her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her further trainings include Foundation Studies (WSP), Waldorf High School Math Teaching (Center for Anthroposophy), and Teaching Sensible Science (SENSRI). Since 2006, Ms. Wasem's roles at the Waldorf School of Princeton, where she presently teaches math and recorder and mentors, have also included teaching keyboarding, piano accompaniment, and tutoring. Prior to working at the Waldorf School of Princeton, she worked for fifteen years in the field of telecommunications, during which time she published many papers, earned a couple of patents, and co-founded Network Design Tools in Eatontown, New Jersey. Ms. Wasem's two alumni children attended WSP from 1997 through 2014.