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Physics Education Research Laboratory

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Congratulations to Dr. Trevor Smith!

Trevor I. Smith successfully defended his dissertation, “Identifying and Addressing Specific Student Difficulties in Advanced Thermal Physics,” on Thursday, March 17. Congratulations to the new Dr. Smith!

Congratulations to Casey Murphy!

On Nov 22, Casey successfully defended her masters thesis entitled “Answer-Seeking and Idea-Constructing During Collaborative Active-Learning Activities in a Physics Laboratory.” The work used video from the PHY 105 class, “Intuitive Quantum Physics,” and involved interaction analysis methods while building on past work by Scherr and Hammer. Congrats, Casey!

Papers by Smith et al., Hawkins et al.

Check out our publication blog, where you can find records of our newest publications by Jeff Hawkins (working with Michael Wittmann, John Thompson, alum Ellie Sayre, and Brian Frank) and Trevor Smith (working with John Thompson and Don Mountcastle).

Congratulations to Dr. R. Padraic Springuel

Padraic Springuel successfully defended his dissertation, “Applying Cluster Analysis To Physics Education Research Data,” on Tuesday, December 5.  Congratulations to the new Dr. Springuel!

Congratulations to Dr. Katrina Black

Katrina Black successfully defended her dissertation, “Multiple Perspectives on Student Solutions to Air Resistance Problems,” on Monday, August 23.  Congratulations to the new Dr. Black!

Dr. Black is currently working as a postdoctoral research associate for the Maine Center for STEM Education Research, primarily researching curricular materials and resources for the Maine Physical Sciences Partnership project.

Why teach physics?

PhysTEC has created a video on what it means to be a physics teacher. It’s worth sharing:

Katrina Black dissertation defense, Aug 23, 2pm

Katrina Black will be defending her Ph.D. dissertation on Monday, August 23, at 2 pm, in Bennett Hall room 102.

Multiple Perspectives on Student Solutions to Air Resistance Problems

Physics Education Research uses multiple theoretical perspectives to describe student reasoning and behavior. I use two common lenses, difficulties and knowledge pieces, to examine the methods students use when solving first order separable differential equations in the context of air resistance problems. I discuss several difficulties students have when incorporating boundary conditions. Additionally, using air resistance as a context, I expand upon resources, a model of student thinking that falls into the pieces paradigm. I introduce procedural resources as a type of resource, give several examples of procedural resources used in the incorporation of boundary conditions. Finally, I extend existing links between the resources model and epistemic games, showing how procedural resources can be organized to create epistemic game facets.

UPDATE: Congratulations, Dr. Black!

Frank published in ICLS 2010 conference proceedings

A copy of Brian Frank’s peer-reviewed ICLS conference proceedings paper has been posted online at

Multiple Conceptual Coherences in the Speed Tutorial: Micro-processes of Local Stability
Brian W. Frank
Proceedings of the 9th International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS 2010) – Volume 1, Full Papers, pp.873-881

Researchers working within knowledge-in-pieces traditions have often employed observational approaches to investigate micro-processes of learning. There is growing evidence from this line of work that students’ intuitive thinking about physical phenomena is characterized more so by its diversity and flexibility than its uniformity and robustness. This characterization implies that much of the dynamics of students’ thinking over short timescales involve processes that stabilize local patterns of thinking, later destabilize them, and allow other patterns to form. This kind of “change” may only involve dynamics by which the system of intuitive knowledge settles into various states without changing the system structure itself. I describe a case study in which a group of college students shift their thinking about motion several times during a collaborative learning activity. Instead of focusing on micro-processes of change, I describe these dynamics in terms of mechanisms that contribute to local stability of students’ conceptual coherences.

Wittmann published in ICLS conference proceedings

A copy of Michael Wittmann’s peer-reviewed ICLS conference proceedings paper has been posted online at

Using conceptual blending to describe emergent meaning in wave propagation
Michael C. Wittmann

Students in interviews on a wave physics topic give answers through embodied actions which connect their understanding of the physics to other common experiences. When answering a question about wavepulses propagating along a long taut spring, students’ gestures help them recruit information about balls thrown the air. I analyze gestural, perceptual, and verbal information gathered using videotaped interviews and classroom interactions. I use conceptual blending to describe how different elements combine to create new, emergent meaning for the students and compare this to a knowledge-in-pieces approach.

Thompson and Wittmann co-PIs on $12M NSF Math Science Partnership grant

John Thompson and Michael Wittmann are co-PIs on an NSF Math Science Partnership grant, led by the Maine Center for Research in STEM Education, that will target the teaching and learning of physical sciences in grades 6-9 and the preparation of science teachers at the University of Maine.  This $12-million project will fundamentally affect the activities of the PERL and the RiSE Center, putting much more emphasis on research on precollege teaching and learning and the preparation and professional development of grades 6-12 physical science teachers.

The Maine Physical Sciences Curriculum Partnership brings together forty-two rural Maine schools, the University of Maine, three Maine non-profits with expertise in science education, and science and technology leaders at the Maine Department of Education.

From the grant proposal Project Summary:

The partners in this project will collaboratively select, refine, and implement coherent, research-supported curricula and then provide the ongoing intensive professional development requisite for strong implementation.  Also, students preparing to teach science from the University and other Maine colleges and universities will be participants in the curriculum selection process, professional development, and implementation, and will assist as teaching partners in the classroom as teachers begin to use the curriculum. Thus, at the core of this project is a partnership that focuses on the implementation of proven curricular resources along with the full range of critical supports. In this way, the implementation work to be carried out in these rural districts also provides a powerful context for the preparation of future teachers as well as a rich venue for research that both informs the project and helps document the essential design features of the underlying approach.



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:;;
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469