Physics Education Research

Current information about the RiSE Center’s Physics Education Research can be found here. RiSE-affiliated physics education researchers include:

MacKenzie R. Stetzer

MacKenzie Stetzer, Assistant Professor of Physics, University of Maine

Current Projects

  • Since 2001, I have been deeply involved in developing research-based and research-validated instructional materials for undergraduates and K-12 teachers.
  • Over the past few years, a primary focus of my work has been an in-depth investigation of student understanding of analog electronics, primarily in the context of upper-division laboratory courses on the topic.  In addition to identifying specific conceptual difficulties and examining the impact of such courses on student learning, I am leading the collaborative development of research-based instructional materials for use in these upper-division courses.
  • Other areas of interest include TA and K-12 teacher ability to assess student understanding, the professional development of TAs and future physics faculty, and student understanding of mechanical waves and physical optics.
  • Physics Education Research Laboratory

 Selected Publications

  • M. Kryjevskaia, M. R. Stetzer, and P. R. L. Heron, “Student understanding of wave behavior at a boundary:  The limiting case of reflection at fixed and free ends,” Am. J. Phys. 79, 508 (2011).
  • L. C. McDermott, P. R. L. Heron, P. S. Shaffer, and M. R. Stetzer, “Improving the preparation of K-12 teachers through physics education research,” Am. J. Phys. 74, 763 (2006).


John Thompson

John Thompson

Current Projects

  • 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.
  • Student understanding of thermal and statistical physics at advanced undergraduate levels in physics, especially:
    • Work and its interpretation via pressure-volume diagrams
    • entropy and the second law of thermodynamics
    • student models for entropy, in the context of ideal gas processes
    • comparisons of student entropy models across disciplines (physics, chemistry, engineering)
    • heat engines and the Carnot cycle
    • the comparison of the teaching and learning of thermodynamics in
    • parallel courses in physics and in engineering (mechanical, chemical)
    • student conceptual understanding
    • discipline-specific tools and approaches (e.g., /P-V/ diagrams, equations of state, steam tables)
    • pedagogical approaches
  • The relationship between conceptual understanding in physics and knowledge of the associated and underlying mathematics, including:
    • 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 and physical science by graduate students and K‑12 teachers, and the interplay between specialized content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge(knowledge of the teaching and learning of a topic), including knowledge of student ideas.
  • Current focus of content for in-service grades 6-9 teachers is kinematics and dynamics

Recent Publications:

  • R. R. Bajracharya and J. R. Thompson, “Student application and understanding of the fundamental theorem of calculus at the mathematics-physics interface,” /Proceedings of the 17th Annual Conference on Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education/ (Mathematical Association of America, 2014).
  • J. W. Clark, J. R. Thompson, and D. B. Mountcastle, “Investigating Student Conceptual Difficulties in Thermodynamics Across Multiple Disciplines: The First Law and P-V Diagrams,” /Proceedings of 121st ASEE/ (American Society for Engineering Education) /Annual Conference and Exposition/(2014).
  • 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).


Michael Wittmann

MWittmann doing his thing

Current Projects

  • Student knowledge: student reasoning in physics, including studying student use of mathematics in advanced physics
  • Teacher knowledge: teacher reasoning in the physical sciences, including the interactions between content knowledge, knowledge of student ideas, assessment, and teaching
  • Learning sciences: building models that account for student performance in answering physics questions
  • Qualitative research methods in PER: discourse analysis and gesture analysis

Recent Publications

  • BARTH-COHEN, L. A. and WITTMANN, M. C. (2017), Aligning Coordination Class Theory With a New Context: Applying a Theory of Individual Learning to Group Learning. Sci. Ed.. doi:10.1002/sce.21264
  • Alvarado, C., Wittmann, M., Rogers, A., & Millay, L. (2016, July 20-21). Problematizing “cold” with K12 Science Teachers. Paper presented at Physics Education Research Conference 2016, Sacramento, CA. Retrieved January 31, 2017, from
  • Wittmann, M., Alvarado, C., & Millay, L. (2016, July 20-21). Teachers’ explanations of student difficulties with gravitational potential energy. Paper presented at Physics Education Research Conference 2016, Sacramento, CA. Retrieved January 31, 2017, from