Physics by Inquiry

Course Information

The goal of CI 1563 is to help students create their own understanding of some fundamental concepts in physics by working in a way similar to scientists. Students will work in small groups to perform experiments and to create explanatory theories for how things work. Students will have the primary responsibility for their own learning in this class. The professor will rarely, if ever, “lecture” in the traditional sense. Instead, students will learn science through doing it and talking about it with their lab partners and the course staff. Emphasis will be placed on students being able to answer physics questions about situations that they have not encountered before and to explain their answers based on the experiments they have performed in class. The aim is not just to know the principles, but to know the evidence that justifies them and to be able to apply the principles and evidence in new situations.

This class is intended for students who are early in their academic career and incorporates instructional strategies that will help students examine their own learning habits and metacognition. It has secondary goals for students to learn to express their ideas in writing (in the context of physics) and to learn formal techniques for working productively in groups. These are particularly valuable for students entering into College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) majors, especially those who are considering a career in elementary or early childhood education.

Class size limit: 24

Sample Syllabus

U of M Catalog Description

Laboratory-based introductory class where students learn by experimenting and model building and testing. Topics include electric circuits, light and color, and observational astronomy. Emphases include the nature of science and science learning, effective strategies for team-based learning, and logical reasoning skills.

Student Qualifications

Students enrolling in CI 1563 must be juniors or seniors in high school and have earned a passing grade in Algebra I. 

Sixty percent of the students must also belong to one or more of the targeted audiences for the Entry Point Project:

  • Between the top 50% and top 20% of their class
  • Multilingual/ELL
  • Members of racial or ethnic minorities
  • First-generation college-bound students and/or
  • From families of low to moderate income

Instructor Qualifications

Instructors apply and are selected by faculty in accordance with the U of M policy governing Academic Appointments with Teaching Functions. Once approved, an instructor is appointed as a Teaching Specialist 9754 (University Job Title and Code) in the College of Continuing and Professional Studies. Instructor qualifications are determined by the sponsoring University department.

View the Instructor Applicant Handbook for course-specific qualifications and application steps. 


Physics by Inquiry, Vols. 1 and 2, L. C. McDermott and Physics Education Group Univ. of Washington; ISBN numbers 9780471144403 and 9780471144410. (Price is approximately $136 per for the two-volume set in 2014 through 

Frequently Asked Questions

Are the texts and readings specified or mandated by the University of Minnesota?
The text is required.

Do teachers have a choice in assignments and exams? Are there required assignments and exams?
The CIS instructor may create exams and assignments or use those from the U of M course.

Is there a training and mentoring system for Physics by Inquiry teachers new to CIS?
Yes. Experienced instructors help new teachers get accustomed to the system. Teachers frequently email one another with questions and share materials with the whole group. New teachers also benefit from workshops that focus on course content and University processes, as well as an orientation to College in the Schools that will familiarize them with the support available through CIS and prepare them for administrative tasks such as registering students and posting grades.

High school class schedules vary; can a teacher in the block system teach Physics by Inquiry?
Physics by Inquiry can be taught in class periods as short as 45 minutes or as long as 145 minutes. Total contact time must equal or exceed 90 hours.

What happens at typical teacher workshops?
Typical activities at CIS workshops include meeting University faculty and hearing about their recent research in the discipline; reviewing and/or developing student assessment tools; sharing instructional materials; discussing particular content, pedagogy, or assessment of the University course; and receiving updates on CIS program policies and practices.

How does Physics by Inquiry (CI 1563) differ from Introductory College Physics I (PHYS 1101W) offered by CIS?
Physics by Inquiry (CI 1563) is a physics course designed primarily (though not exclusively) for non-science majors and future teachers. It focuses on having students learn physics by participating in the process of scientific discovery rather than on more traditional quantitative problem solving. This nontraditional perspective of learning physics through hands-on experimentation and peer discussion and making use of evidence in scientific argumentation makes this course useful for students whether or not they are interested in further studies in science. CI 1563 also has an emphasis on the applications of physics to environmental issues and the content (ranging from properties of magnets, to light and color and optics, to astronomy and others) differs from that found in a traditional physics course.

High Schools Offering This Course

Brooklyn Center Secondary Arts and IB World School
Cretin-Derham Hall
Edison High School
Henry Sibley High School
Humboldt Senior High School
North Lakes Academy
Richfield High School
St. Anthony Village High School
South High School
Wabasha-Kellogg High School
Waseca High School
Washington Technology Magnet School