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Physics Education Research Laboratory


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Nissen and Shemwell publish in Phys Rev

As part of the Focused Collection on Gender in Physics, in Phys Rev PER, Jayson and Jon published a paper on “Gender, experience, and self-efficacy in introductory physics.” Click here for more.

ABSTRACT: There is growing evidence of persistent gender achievement gaps in university physics instruction, not only for learning physics content, but also for developing productive attitudes and beliefs about learning physics. These gaps occur in both traditional and interactive-engagement (IE) styles of physics instruction. We investigated one gender gap in the area of attitudes and beliefs. This was men’s and women’s physics self-efficacy, which comprises students’ thoughts and feelings about their capabilities to succeed as learners in physics. According to extant research using pre- and post-course surveys, the self-efficacy of both men and women tends to be reduced after taking traditional and IE physics courses. Moreover, self-efficacy is reduced further for women than for men. However, it remains unclear from these studies whether this gender difference is caused by physics instruction. It may be, for instance, that the greater reduction of women’s self-efficacy in physics merely reflects a broader trend in university education that has little to do with physics per se. We investigated this and other alternative causes, using an in-the-moment measurement technique called the Experience Sampling Method (ESM). We used ESM to collect multiple samples of university students’ feelings of self-efficacy during four types of activity for two one-week periods: (i) an introductory IE physics course, (ii) students’ other introductory STEM courses, (iii) their non-STEM courses, and (iv) their activities outside of school. We found that women experienced the IE physics course with lower self-efficacy than men, but for the other three activity types, women’s self-efficacy was not reliably different from men’s. We therefore concluded that the experience of physics instruction in the IE physics course depressed women’s self-efficacy. Using complementary measures showing the IE physics course to be similar to others in which gendered self-efficacy effects have been consistently observed, we further concluded that IE physics instruction in general is likely to be detrimental to women’s self-efficacy. Consequently, there is a clear need to redress this inequity in IE physics, and probably also in traditional instruction.

Almuni Trevor Smith submits paper on Model Analysis

Our alum, Trevor Smith, sent word that he’d submitted a paper on error analysis when using Lei Bao’s Model Analysis. You can get a pre-print version of the paper at arxiv.org.

Rabindra and John publish about epistemic games

Analytical derivation: An epistemic game for solving mathematically based physics problems

Rabindra R. Bajracharya and John R. Thompson
Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 12, 010124 – Published 30 March 2016

Problem solving, which often involves multiple steps, is an integral part of physics learning and teaching. Using the perspective of the epistemic game, we documented a specific game that is commonly pursued by students while solving mathematically based physics problems: the analytical derivation game. This game involves deriving an equation through symbolic manipulations and routine mathematical operations, usually without any physical interpretation of the processes. This game often creates cognitive obstacles in students, preventing them from using alternative resources or better approaches during problem solving. We conducted hour-long, semi-structured, individual interviews with fourteen introductory physics students. Students were asked to solve four “pseudophysics” problems containing algebraic and graphical representations. The problems required the application of the fundamental theorem of calculus (FTC), which is one of the most frequently used mathematical concepts in physics problem solving. We show that the analytical derivation game is necessary, but not sufficient, to solve mathematically based physics problems, specifically those involving graphical representations.

Mac co-edits a Focused Collection for Phys Rev

Editorial: Focused Collection: Preparing and Supporting University Physics Educators

Rachel E. Scherr and MacKenzie R. Stetzer
Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 12, 010002 – Published 22 February 2016

Click on the link to get the full text…

Michael and Katrina write about resource creation in Phys Rev

Mathematical actions as procedural resources: An example from the separation of variables

Michael C. Wittmann and Katrina E. Black
Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 11, 020114 – Published 23 September 2015

[This paper is part of the Focused Collection on Upper Division Physics Courses.] Students learning to separate variables in order to solve a differential equation have multiple ways of correctly doing so. The procedures involved in separation include division or multiplication after properly grouping terms in an equation, moving terms (again, at times grouped) from one location on the page to another, or simply carrying out separation as a single act without showing any steps. We describe student use of these procedures in terms of Hammer’s resources, showing that each of the previously listed procedures is its own “piece” of a larger problem solving activity. Our data come from group examinations of students separating variables while solving an air resistance problem in an intermediate mechanics class. Through detailed analysis of four groups of students, we motivate that the mathematical procedures are resources and show the issues that students must resolve in order to successfully separate variables. We use this analysis to suggest ways in which new resources (such as separation) come to be.

Boltzmann factor and heat engines papers accepted to Physical Review: Smith et al. (2015), and Smith et al. (2015)

Two papers from the thermal physics project have been accepted for publication in Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research.  Phys. Rev. ST – PER is publishing a Focused Collection on Physics Education Research in Upper Division Courses.

The two papers are both from the dissertation work of Trevor Smith.

Chase and Wittmann (2012): PERC Paper Award Finalist

Congratulations to Evan Chase and Michael C. Wittmann: Their paper “Evidence of embodied cognition via speech and gesture complementarity” was a finalist in the competition for the 2012 PERC Proceedings Paper Award.

UMaine PERL has a track record of outstanding conference proceedings papers. In 2011, Rabindra Bajracharya et al.’s paper “Student interpretation of definite integrals at the math-physics interface” was among the seven finalists for the award. The year before, “Addressing Student Difficulties with Statistical Mechanics: The Boltzmann Factor” by Trevor Smith et al. made it to the final round of nominated papers.

Papers for the PERC Proceedings Paper Award are selected based on feedback from reviewers, the PERC Proceedings editors, and a committee selected by the Physics Education Research Leadership Organizing Council (PERLOC). The award winner is chosen for the outstanding quality of the carried out research, the overall readability of the paper, and the potential impact on the PER Community. An amount of $200 is awarded to the authors of the winning paper.

Welcome Jon Shemwell and Mac Stetzer!

The Physics Education Research Laboratory welcomes two new faculty members!

Jonathan Shemwell, Assistant Professor of Education and Cooperating Assistant Professor of Physics, joins us from Stanford University.

MacKenzie Stetzer, Assistant Professor of Physics, came to us from the University of Washington.

Presentations at PERC 2011 in Omaha

After the presentations of the AAPT, we leapt right into the PERC and were even busier there.

Conference program

Invited Posters:
Benedikt W. Harrer, Rachel E. Scherr, Michael C. Wittmann, Brian W. Frank, Hunter G. Close, “Elements of Proximal Formative Assessment in Learners’ Discourse about Energy” (abstract)

John R. Thompson, David Roundy, Donald B. Mountcastle, “Representations of Partial Derivatives in Thermodynamics” (abstract)

Michael C. Wittmann, “What a Mathematical Representation Tells Us About Reasoning About Integrals” (abstract)

Contributed Posters:
Rabindra R. Bajracharya, John R. Thompson, Thomas M. Wemyss, “Student interpretation of definite integrals at the math-physics interface” (abstract)

Jeffrey M. Hawkins, Brian W. Frank, John R. Thompson, Michael C. Wittmann, Thomas M. Weymss, “Probing student understanding with alternative questioning strategies” (abstract)

Adam Kaczynski, Michael C. Wittmann, “Students Reconciling Contradictory Commitments in Damped Harmonic Motion Problems” (abstract)

Sergio Rojas, “Preparation for Future Learning in Physics via Dynamic Problem Solving Strategies” (abstract)

Trevor I. Smith, John R. Thompson, Donald B. Mountcastle, “Student Understanding of Taylor Series Expansions in Statistical Mechanics” (abstract)

John R. Thompson, Warren M. Christensen, Chris L. Rasmussen, Marcy H. Towns, “TRUSE Conference: Integrating Undergraduate Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics Education Research” (abstract)

Michael C. Wittmann, Evan Chase, “Evidence of Embodied Cognition about Wave Propagation” (abstract)

Presentations at the AAPT Summer Meeting 2011 in Omaha

This summer, PERL showcased its work at both the AAPT and PERC meetings in Omaha. Talks were well-received, and our papers were all accepted for publication.

Codes in parantheses refer to the abstract entry in the conference program.

Invited Presentations:
MacKenzie R. Stetzer, “Using Experiments to Foster Conceptual Understanding: Insights from PER” (AD01)

Contributed Presentations:
Rabindra R. Bajracharya, John R. Thompson, Thomas M. Wemyss, “Student Reasoning about Graphical Representations of Definite Integrals” (CB01)

Benedikt W. Harrer, Rachel E. Scherr, Michael C. Wittmann, Hunter G. Close, Brian W. Frank, “Two Right Answers: The Difficulty of Reconciling Competing Physics Commitments” (DI03)

Jeffrey M. Hawkins, Brian W. Frank, John R. Thompson, Michael C. Wittmann, Thomas M. Wemyss, “Probing Student Understanding with Alternative Questioning Strategies” (CB04)

Adam Kaczynski, Michael C. Wittmann, “Students’ Contradictory Commitments in Damped Harmonic Motion Problems” (CB05)

Trevor I. Smith, John R. Thompson, Donald B. Mountcastle, “Student Difficulties with a Taylor Series Expansion in Statistical Mechanics” (EB10)

Michael C. Wittmann, Evan Chase, “Pulling a Spring Taut Affects Students’ Talk about Wave Propagation” (DI08)

Contributed Posters:
Rabindra R. Bajracharya, John R. Thompson, Thomas M. Wemyss, “Student Reasoning about Graphical Representations of Definite Integrals” (PST2C02)

Jeffrey M. Hawkins, Brian W. Frank, Michael C. Wittmann, John R. Thompson, Thomas M. Wemyss, “Probing Student Understanding with Alternative Questioning Strategies” (PST2C15)

Adam Kaczynski, Michael C. Wittmann, “Students Reconciling Contradictory Commitments in Damped Harmonic Motion Problems” (PST2C24)

Trevor I. Smith, John R. Thompson, Donald B. Mountcastle, “Student Understanding of Taylor Series Expansions in Statistical Mechanics” (PST2C48)

Session Presider:
John Thompson, “Research in Undergraduate Math Education” (GF)


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Contact Information

Physics Education Research Laboratory
Department of Physics and Astronomy, 5709 Bennett Hall
Phone: 207.581.1033; 207.581.1030; 207.581.1237E-mail: mackenzie.stetzer@maine.edu; thompsonj@maine.edu; mwittmann@maine.edu
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469
207.581.1865