Michael Wittmann is an Associate Professor of Physics and a Cooperating Associate Professor of Education at the University of Maine. A co-principal investigator on the Maine Physical Sciences Partnership (PSP) grant, Dr. Wittmann has been heavily involved with the project from its initial phases. Some of his many roles include leading collaboratives, the Summer Academy, and Curriculum Evaluation Task Forces. He is part of the PSP Research Team, a group of faculty members, undergraduate students, graduate students, and post docs carrying out research on teaching and learning within the project. Education research is an important component of the PSP, with the aim of shedding light on questions of how science is taught and learned most effectively.
One of Dr. Wittmann’s current research interests is science teachers’ understanding of student knowledge, and how this understanding affects student learning. When you ask a typical middle or high school student if they understand a science concept that they have been studying, they might nod their head “yes,” whether or not the concept is totally clear to them. How can you tell what they really grasp and where more assistance is needed in learning the idea? Some teachers seem to have a natural ability to know what their students are picking up, and how to proceed if concepts aren’t getting through.
Dr. Wittmann comments that experienced teachers gain abilities to “pick out the most valuable pieces” of student knowledge, and are able to use these to help students build their understanding of new materials. Knowing what these and other “valuable pieces” are, and how they can be used most effectively, are abilities that some teachers have gained without learning them explicitly; the result is a very important skill that is used subconsciously, and is therefore difficult to pass on to less experienced teachers. Dr. Wittmann hopes to zero in on some of these skills and make them explicit. By naming them and understanding how they benefit students, they can be used in professional development settings for new teachers.
The PSP provides a unique opportunity to do this research, because of the amount of interaction researchers are able to have with teachers – through collaboratives and other meetings, shared journal entries, etc. This frequent and in-depth communication with teachers is not normally a possibility for researchers in a middle or high school setting. The PSP also allows researchers to gather data from both students and teachers relatively easily, from a large number of classrooms using common curricula and teaching methods. Pretests and posttests can help determine what students know and what they are learning. Teacher surveys can give some information on what teachers know about their students’ understanding of science concepts. Most importantly, researchers have the opportunity to observe classrooms to help them understand what teachers are doing while interacting with students to recognize and encourage deep learning.
Dr. Wittmann’s research will both draw from and add to a growing body of knowledge about these questions of teacher and student understanding. Along with the work of several other faculty researchers at the university, this is a very exciting outcome of the PSP. In the meantime, Dr. Wittmann says about his work so far that he’s had “more fun in the past year than I ever thought I would.”