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Faculty - John Thompson

John R. Thompson
Associate Professor of Physics,
Cooperating Associate Professor of Education
, and member of the Center for Research in STEM Education

Office:  223 Bennett Hall
Phone: (207)581-1030

  • 1990  B.S. in Physics (cum laude), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  • 1992  Sc.M. in Physics, Brown University
  • 1998  Ph.D. in Physics, Brown University

Physics Education Research Laboratory


Physics Education Research – research on the learning and teaching of physics – including research-based curriculum development.  Co-manage research group of 15-20 members, including undergraduates, master’s and doctoral students, and faculty.

Current active research topics:

  • Student understanding of thermal physics at advanced undergraduate levels in physics, especially:
    • entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics
    • student models for entropy, in the context of ideal gas processes
    • student application of the Second Law to heat engines and thermodynamic cyclic processes
    • comparisons of student entropy models across disciplines (chemistry, chemical engineering, and physics)
    • The relationship between conceptual understanding in physics and knowledge of the associated and underlying mathematics
    • integration in the context of process variables and state functions
    • partial differentiation in the contexts of material properties and the Maxwell relations
    • probability in the context of statistical distributions
  • Understanding of teaching and learning in physics by graduate students and teachers, and the interplay between specialized content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge (knowledge of the teaching and learning of a topic).
  • Student understanding of vectors and vector operations.
  • Student understanding of two-dimensional kinematics, including the context dependence of that understanding and the interpretations of different representations. Development and assessment of curriculum that emphasizes conceptual understanding and transfer to different contexts.
  • Conceptual understanding of sound at both the introductory level and among preservice and inservice K-12 teachers. Development of curriculum on sound aimed at elementary teachers, and on longitudinal waves aimed at introductory physics students

Other topics of interest:

  • Student understanding of magnetic fields and representations thereof, and in particular of the magnetic structure of flexible refrigerator magnets
  • Student understanding of concepts in 9th- and 12th-grade physics courses:  investigating the Physics First movement

Selected Publications:

T.I. Smith, J.R. Thompson and D.B. Mountcastle, “Student Understanding of Taylor Series Expansions in Statistical Mechanics,” Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research 9, 020110 (2013).

J. W. Clark, J. R. Thompson and D. B. Mountcastle, “Comparing Student Conceptual Understanding of Thermodynamics in Physics and Engineering,” in 2012 Physics Education Research Conference, P.V. Engelhardt, A.D. Churukian, N.S. Rebello, eds., AIP Conference Proceedings 1513, 102-105 (2013). doi:

W.M. Christensen and J.R. Thompson, “Investigating graphical representations of slope and derivative without a physics context,”
Phys. Rev. ST Physics Ed. Research 8, 023101 (2012).

R. R. Bajracharya, T. M. Wemyss, J. R. Thompson, “Student interpretation of the signs of definite integrals using graphical representations,” in
2011 Physics Education Research Conference, C. Singh, N.S. Rebello, P. Engelhardt, eds., AIP Conference Proceedings 1413, 111-114 (2012).
Finalist, 2011 PERC (Physics Education Research Conference) Proceedings Paper Award, given by the Physics Education Research
Leadership and Organizing Committee. Selected as a finalist because it is noteworthy in terms of the quality of research, readability and
impact on the PER Community.

J.R. Thompson, W.M. Christensen, and M.C. Wittmann, “Preparing future teachers to anticipate student difficulties in physics in a
graduate-level course in physics, pedagogy, and education research,” Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research 7, 010108
(2011),; reprinted in Teacher Education in Physics: Research, Curriculum, and Practice, D.E. Meltzer and P.S. Shaffer, Eds., pp. 91-102 (American Physical Society, 2011),
(This book was distributed to every physics department chair in the United States.)



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