Current Research Projects

Our major projects are described below. Where applicable, we have linked to full project pages.

Transforming experiences for science and engineering students: Integrating scientific practices into introductory calculus-based mechanics

Developing students' skills with scientific practices is key for preparing science and engineering professionals, science educators, and, more broadly, critical consumers of scientific information. Yet most undergraduate instruction in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields lack opportunities for students to engage with authentic scientific practices (e.g., developing and using models, designing experiments, using computational modeling). Courses that leverage scientific practices are more likely to engage students in critical and creative ways of thinking that typically does not happen in traditional lecture environments.

Our project, entitled Projects and Practices in Physics (P3), is a community-based learning environment for introductory mechanics that begins to investigate how students learn to engage with scientific practices while learning physics content. Through the study of complex problems and the use of computational projects, students will learn core physics concepts while engaging in the practices of doing science. In this project, we will investigate some of the fundamental questions asked in PER, such as:

  • How do students blend conceptual knowledge, representational tools (e.g., mathematics, models), and computational algorithms when engaging in different scientific practices?
  • How does engaging students in scientific practices shape their views of science?
  • How do different social interactions play into the development of the students' use of scientific practices?

Building Interdisciplinary Learning Environments: Physics for Life Scientists

The National Research Council's DBER report establishes science as undergoing a fundamental shift towards increasing interdisciplinarity. This creates a need to develop curricula that can help students develop the necessary competencies and dispositions to succeed as members of an interdisciplinary workforce. However, little is known about the mechanisms that support learning that crosses disciplinary boundaries, and initial research shows that for many students these experiences are fragmented (or even in conflict) rather than coherent. We are exploring the intersection of physics and the life sciences to understand how to build from successful learning strategies from physics education to create successful interdisciplinary learning environments. In doing so, our work focuses on some of the following questions:

  • What are the key design features of a undergraduate interdisciplinary course?
  • What kinds of models and modeling practices cut across disciplinary boundaries?
  • In what ways can a learning environment (e.g. physics) draw upon students' alternative disciplinary affinities (e.g. love of biology)?

Understanding the Development of Disciplinary Identities

Retention and persistence is a critical issue facing the science community. Studies have shown a student's sense of self is a key factor influencing retention. At MSU we are exploring the ways that student develop these perceptions of belonging to the science community. At the upper division level we are exploring how students develop a subject specific identity. We are also investigating how undergraduates begin to see themselves as scientists and negotiate their entry to the community of practicing scientists. We pay particular attention to the role of the learning environment in these developing identities. In a variety of classroom contexts we are exploring the following questions:

  • What critical experiences shift students' identities of what it means to be a "physicist" or a physics major?
  • How do students learn to describe what it means to be a physicist and how does that description change over time?
  • How do learning environments impact students' perceptions of their available future trajectories?
  • What are the critical factors in developing a functional community of learners?

Students' use of mathematics in upper-divison physics

Upper-division physics courses introduce quantitative models that require students to use sophisticated mathematical tools to develop an understanding of them. In addition, students must learn to solve longer and more complicated problems that incorporate these physical models and mathematical tools. Our project aims to understand students' in-the-moment reasoning about math in physics. We are currently focused on learning environments that emphasize group problem solving and in particular a junior level electromagnetism course. We employ a naturalistic observations approach, which allows access to student reasoning in learning environments that center on active group learning. Through this approach we can uncover difficulties individual students experience with specific models and tools.

Through analysis of our naturalistic observation data we have noticed that students' use of math appears markedly different from other activities in traditional problem solving. Prior to "doing math" students have animated discussions in which they collectively set up the problem. Subsequent to this set-up, when students are actively doing math, they work both quietly and individually. We are conducting an analysis to determine how students decide what math to do, how they do it, and how they proceed after math is complete. This project allows us to pursue the following questions:

  • How do students decide if they have sufficiently scaffolded a problem so that they can perform the necessary mathematics?
  • How do students determine how they will proceed after they have done the math?
  • What difficulties do students exhibit with these longer, more complicated problems?

Examining Group Problem Solving Dynamics in Physics

When students solve problems in groups, their behaviors and strategies are understandably different than when they work individually. Differences in problem solving approaches, shared resources (computers, worksheets, etc.), and gender can all affect the manner in which a group proceeds. In this project, we hope to understand more fully the nature of these effects.

In a study currently in progress, we examine the effects of students' diverse problem solving strategies. Sometimes these strategies have well defined entry and exit conditions, rules, and moves. These are known as epistemic games. A particular epistemic game called the "answer-making" epistemic game has been previously identified in the literature, in which a student's goal is to arrive at an answer with some reasoning or justification. The focus of previous of previous research on this epistemic game has been on individual students solving multiple choice questions.

We have begun to examine how this game might be played when students work cooperatively in groups on problems in which they are not provided multiple possible solutions. We hope to develop a model for how group interaction affects the playing of the answer-making epistemic game.

In a new calculus-based mechanics course that emphasizes problem-based learning through complex analytical problems and computational modeling projects, we hope to address the roles of shared resources and gender on group problem solving dynamics.

We aim to answer the following research questions:

  • How do students play the answer-making epistemic game when working in groups?
  • What is the effect of negotiating a shared resource when solving computational problems in a group?
  • What is the role of gender in the dynamics of a group when they are solving computational problems?

Creating a Coherent Gateway for STEM Teaching and Learning at MSU

Michigan State University was recently awarded a grant from the Association of American Universities' (AAU) Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative to improve their gateway courses in biology, chemistry, and physics. As part of this project, the Physics and Astronomy Department is holding discussions with faculty to determine the core ideas students should learn in introductory physics and what they should be able to do with that knowledge. These discussions are intended to articulate specific performance expectations for the gateway courses as well as develop assessment items to determine if students are meeting these performance expectations. Eventually, these discussions will become interdisciplinary in an attempt to align the way each department teaches cross-disciplinary elements of their curricula, such as energy. Two new instruments are being developed as part of this project to aid the transformation and to measure and track change in the introductory courses: one that characterizes assessments and another that looks at both what is being taught in the classroom as well as how it is being taught.

This project also creates a new competitive fellowship program in which the awarded fellows work with other members of their departments and education researchers to study and/or improve their own courses.