Learning Across STEM Disciplines
UMaine researchers seek to improve the teaching of thermodynamics and electronics in physics and engineering.
Researchers at the University of Maine hope to improve the teaching and learning of two central topics in physics and engineering that are critical to undergraduate programs through a three-year project.
John Thompson, an associate professor of physics and cooperating associate professor of STEM education, and MacKenzie Stetzer, assistant professor of physics and cooperating assistant professor of STEM education, have received $599,999 from the National Science Foundation to investigate student learning of thermodynamics and electronics — including electric circuits — in both disciplines.
“Only in the last 10 years or so have researchers really targeted student learning beyond the introductory level, including in laboratory settings. Interdisciplinary research that focuses on specific physics and engineering content is also relatively novel,” says Thompson of the project.
Both of the targeted areas are aligned with a recent National Research Council report on the status and future directions of discipline-based education research, Stetzer adds.
Undergraduate programs in physics and engineering often include parallel courses that teach the same topics, so the researchers want to determine the important differences between what students do and don’t learn in courses that cover the same material.
Thompson and Stetzer have previously conducted research on learning in STEM fields. Their research — along with studies conducted by many other researchers — confirm that if a student can correctly solve textbook problems, it doesn’t always mean they understand the underlying concepts.
The researchers plan to look at content in parallel courses across disciplines for similarities and differences; study student conceptual understanding across disciplines before and after instruction through written questions, interviews and classroom observations; and use research results to guide the modification and testing of existing instructional materials as well as the development of new materials for use across disciplines to help students learn difficult material in physics and engineering courses.
“Figuring out what works across disciplines and leveraging the strengths of effective instructional strategies employed in both disciplines are ways to increase the efficiency of these typically rather time-consuming research-based curriculum development efforts,” Stetzer says.
Physics Ph.D. students Jessica Clark and Kevin Van De Bogart are leading the work in thermodynamics and electronics, respectively; the research will be the focus of their dissertations. Donald Mountcastle, associate professor of physics and cooperating associate professor of biochemistry, and Wilhelm Alexander Friess, associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of UMaine’s Brunswick Engineering Program are the project’s senior personnel. The research is taking place in courses in mechanical, chemical, and electrical engineering, as well as in physics.
The majority of the project’s research staff are members of UMaine’s Physics Education Research Laboratory (PERL) and the Maine Center for Research in STEM Education (RiSE Center). The PERL consists of about 15 faculty, postdoctoral and graduate students in physics and science education. The RiSE Center includes faculty from several STEM departments and houses programs for a master of science in teaching and a Ph.D. in STEM education.
The researchers say due to the project’s interdisciplinary nature, it has the potential to improve the teaching and learning of physics and engineering at not only UMaine, but beyond, including internationally.
“The development of effective instructional materials based on research is particularly challenging. While many individual faculty develop their own materials and strategies, they usually don’t have time to thoroughly research how well that all works and iteratively refine the materials,” says Thompson, who is also co-director of the PERL.
The modified materials created from the project will be designed to be easily integrated into existing courses and won’t require instructors to implement an entirely new curriculum.
“Coming from a physics perspective, we’ve already begun to see reasoning approaches in engineering classes that we hadn’t observed when working with physics students,” Stetzer says. “We expect to see a similar phenomenon as we collaborate more fully with our engineering colleagues in the project and begin to ask engineering-based questions in physics courses.”
The findings are expected to positively affect all disciplines engaged in teaching thermodynamics and electronics, and could lead to the development of a more coherent educational experience, especially for undergraduates in physics and engineering, the project proposal states. The documentation of differences in instructional approaches and learning outcomes could become a valuable resource for instructors, textbook authors, curriculum developers, education researchers and governing bodies in both disciplines.
“Our findings on student difficulties and the effectiveness of different instructional approaches should inform more nuanced studies within each discipline. This will in turn produce new results that can improve the learning and teaching of these topics more broadly,” Thompson says.
Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747