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Physics Education Research Lab

The Physics Education Research Lab at Michigan State University (PERL@MSU) is an interdisciplinary collaboration that studies: how students in learn physics and engage in physics practice, social and contextual factors that promote student learning and engagement, assessments (conceptual learning, epistemology, and practice), and educational technology use and practice. We support work in a variety of contexts from pre-college to post-graduate. Our research group includes faculty, staff, postdocs, and students from the Department of Physics and Astronomy, the College of Education, Lyman Briggs College, the CREATE for STEM Institute, and Science Studies at State.

For access to the most up-to-date information about our group, please go to our website.

Present Members of PERL

  • Danny Caballero - Assistant Professor of Physics; PERL Co-director
  • Katie Hinko - Assistant Professor, Lyman Briggs College / Physics
  • Paul Irving - Assistant Professor of Physics
  • Vashti Sawtelle - Assistant Professor, Lyman Briggs College / Physics; PERL Co-director
  • David Stroupe - Assistant Professor of Teacher Education; Affiliate Faculty
  • Stuart Tessmer - Associate Professor of Physics; Affiliate Faculty
  • Brian O'Shea - Associate Professor of Physics; Affiliate Faculty
  • Alicia Alonzo - Associate Professor of Teacher Education; Affiliate Faculty
  • Brian Danielak - Postdoctoral Researcher
  • John Aiken - Research Scientist
  • Angie Little - Research Scientist
  • Bill Martinez - Postdoctoral Researcher
  • Mashood KK - Postdoctoral Researcher
  • Kelsey Funkhouser - Graduate student in Physics
  • Abhilash Nair - Graduate students in Physics
  • Michael Obsniuk - Graduate student in Physics
  • Alanna Pawlak - Graduate student in Physics
  • May Lee - Graduate student in Teacher Education
  • Brian Hancock - Graduate student in Teacher Education
  • Tom Finzell - Graduate student in Physics (FAST Fellow mentee)
  • Justin Gambrell - Undergraduate student in Physics
  • Kristy Griswold - Undergraduate student in Environmental Science
  • Nat Hawkins - Undergraduate student in Physics
  • Nikita Kumar - Undergraduate student in Physics
  • Anna Turnbull - Undergraduate student in Physics
  • Alyssa Waterson - Undergraduate student in Physics

PERL Job Opportunities

Former members and affiliates

  • Paul Hamerski - Undergraduate student in Physics (Carnegie Mellon, REU)
  • Laura Hunter - Undergraduate student in Physics (Mt. Holyoke, REU)
  • Leanne Doughty - Postdoctoral Researcher (now, Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Colorado Denver
  • James Laverty - Postdoctoral Researcher (now, Assistant Professor at Kansas State University)
  • Steve Wolf - Postdoctoral Researcher (now, Assistant Professor at Eastern Carolina University)
  • Adam Fritsch - Graduate student in Physics (FAST Fellow mentee, now Assistant Professor at Gonzaga University)

Our work is supported by the National Science Foundation (DUE 1431776, DUE 1524128, and DUE 1504786), the Association of American Universities, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, MSU's College of Natural Science and College of Education.

Current Research Projects

Transforming experiences for science and engineering students: Integrating scientific practices into introductory calculus-based mechanics

Irving, Obsniuk, Lee, Hancock, Stroupe, Tessmer, Sawtelle, Caballero

Developing students' skills with scientific practices is key for preparing science and engineering professionals, science educators, and, more broadly, critical consumers of scientific information. Yet most undergraduate instruction in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields lack opportunities for students to engage with authentic scientific practices (e.g., developing and using models, designing experiments, using computational modeling). Courses that leverage scientific practices are more likely to engage students in critical and creative ways of thinking that typically does not happen in traditional lecture environments.

Our project, entitled Projects and Practices in Physics (P3), is a community-based learning environment for introductory mechanics that begins to investigate how students learn to engage with scientific practices while learning physics content. Through the study of complex problems and the use of computational projects, students will learn core physics concepts while engaging in the practices of doing science. In this project, we will investigate some of the fundamental questions asked in PER, such as:

  • How do students blend conceptual knowledge, representational tools (e.g., mathematics, models), and computational algorithms when engaging in different scientific practices?
  • How does engaging students in scientific practices shape their views of science?
  • How do different social interactions play into the development of the students' use of scientific practices?
  • How do scaffolds such as formative feedback based on in class interactions influence the appropriation of scientific practices and help transition students from traditional learning environments to the P3 learning environment?

Exploring Cross-Disciplinary Connections: Physics for Life Scientists

Nair, Sawtelle

The National Research Council's DBER report establishes science as undergoing a fundamental shift towards increasing interdisciplinarity. This creates a need to develop curricula that can help students develop the necessary competencies and dispositions to succeed as members of an interdisciplinary workforce. However, little is known about the mechanisms that support learning that crosses disciplinary boundaries, and initial research shows that for many students these experiences are fragmented (or even in conflict) rather than coherent. We are exploring the intersection of physics, chemistry, and biology to understand how to build from successful learning strategies from physics education to create successful interdisciplinary learning environments. In doing so, our work focuses on some of the following questions:

  • - What kinds of conceptual connections do undergraduate students make across their introductory science courses?
  • What kinds of models and modeling practices cut across disciplinary boundaries?
  • What are the key design features of a undergraduate interdisciplinary course?
  • In what ways can a learning environment (e.g. physics) draw upon students' alternative disciplinary affinities (e.g. love of biology)?

Understanding the Development of Disciplinary Identities

Little, Irving, Sawtelle

Retention and persistence is a critical issue facing the science community. Studies have shown a student's sense of self is a key factor influencing retention. At MSU we are exploring the ways that student develop these perceptions of belonging to the science community. At the upper division level we are exploring how students develop a subject specific identity. We are also investigating how undergraduates begin to see themselves as scientists and negotiate their entry to the community of practicing scientists. We pay particular attention to the role of the learning environment in these developing identities. In a variety of classroom contexts we are exploring the following questions:

  • What critical experiences shift students' identities of what it means to be a "physicist" or a physics major?
  • How do students learn to describe what it means to be a physicist and how does that description change over time?
  • How do learning environments impact students' perceptions of their available future trajectories?
  • What are the critical factors in developing a functional community of learners?

Students' use of mathematics in upper-division physics

Doughty, Turnbull, Caballero

Upper-division physics courses introduce quantitative models that require students to use sophisticated mathematical tools to develop an understanding of them. In addition, students must learn to solve longer and more complicated problems that incorporate these physical models and mathematical tools. We currently have two projects aimed at investigating how students approach these upper-division problems and how they use mathematical tools therein.

One project focuses on students' written responses to open-ended assessment items to identify individual student approaches, and difficulties they experience with specific models and tools. In the other project, we examine students' in-the-moment reasoning about math during group problem solving, through naturalistic observations in learning environments that center on active group learning. We are conducting an analysis to determine how students decide what math to do, how they do it, and how they proceed after math is complete.

The approaches we use in both projects have different affordances, but together allow us to pursue the following questions:

  • In what ways do students use mathematics across the upper-division physics, and how does that use change over time?
  • How do difficulties that students exhibit in their work connect to their in-the-moment reasoning about mathematics in physics?

Examining Group Problem Solving Dynamics in Physics

Pawlak, Obsniuk, Lee, Irving, Sawtelle, Caballero

When students solve problems in groups, their behaviors and strategies are understandably different than when they work individually. Differences in problem solving approaches, shared resources (e.g., computers, worksheets), and group composition (e.g., gender, math background) can all affect the manner in which a group proceeds in its work. Through a collection of studies, we aim to more fully understand the nature of these effects.

In a study currently in progress, we closely examine the interactions among students as they problem solve, focusing on how the students engage with each other to achieve a common goal. We have observed students interacting with one another in several distinct "modes of collaboration" while solving physics problems. In this study, we attempt to better understand these modes, including aspects such as their defining characteristics, their prevalence, their relative productivity (with regard to physics understanding), and the relationships among them.

While working in groups, students interact through various communication acts. Because all discourse ascribes positions to individuals in particular ways, and those positions can afford or constrain the action(s) available to an individual in a given setting, in another study, we examine the interactions between students in their groups with respect to the positions they ascribe to themselves and each other. Positions relate to how a person is seen and heard by others and differ from "roles" in that positions are more dynamic, due to their existence in the moment-to-moment interactions that continually change over time. In this study, we investigate how these acts of positioning between group members relates to their learning experiences in the class.

In some environments, new tools (e.g., computers) may affect and/or mediate how a group interacts. Given the ubiquity of computation in modern physics research we have brought computational physics to the foreground of the introductory physics classroom as a modern science tool. In a novel calculus-based mechanics course developed at MSU, groups of students are introduced to the use of computational physics through complex and ill-defined (i.e., realistic) problems. Our ongoing investigations in this study focus on the nature of observed group-computer interactions, as well as the accompanying strategies employed and the learning opportunities afforded to the group, in an attempt to better understand the pedagogical utility of computational physics in a group setting.

Characterizing and Developing the Next Generation of Physics Assessments

Laverty, Caballero

As part of ongoing transformations (see "Creating a coherent gateway for STEM teaching and learning at MSU" below), a crossdisciplinary team of discipline-based education researchers has developed a new instrument to characterize assessments in physics, chemistry, and biology. The Three-Dimensional Learning Assessment Protocol (3D-LAP) is a set of criteria that can be used to determine if an individual assessment item (or cluster of items) aligns with a scientific practice, crosscutting concept, or disciplinary core idea. We have collected exams and homework sets from each introductory physics course and are now beginning the process of characterizing those assessments with the 3D-LAP. Additionally, we will collect the assessments in upcoming years to characterize the changes over time.

We aim to answer the following research questions:

  • How do the assessments in the introductory physics courses change as a result of a transformation (see below) focused on core ideas and scientific practices?
  • What changes are required to update existing assessments to include scientific practices?
  • How do faculty perceive assessments that include both scientific practices and core ideas?

Other Projects

Creating a coherent gateway for STEM teaching and learning at MSU

Laverty, Tessmer, Caballero

Michigan State University awarded a grant from the Association of American Universities' (AAU) Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative to improve the gateway courses in biology, chemistry, and physics. As part of this project, the Physics and Astronomy Department is holding discussions with faculty to determine the core ideas students should learn in introductory physics and what they should be able to do with that knowledge (the scientific practices). These discussions have led to the development of performance expectations for the gateway courses that integrate core ideas and scientific practices. Currently, these conversations are working to develop an end-of-semester assessment that will be used to determine if students are meeting these performance expectations. This assessment will serve as the evidence the department needs to improve student learning. Eventually, these discussions will become interdisciplinary in an attempt to align the way each department teaches cross-disciplinary elements of their curricula, such as energy. Two new instruments are being developed as part of this project to aid the transformation and to measure and track change in the introductory courses: one that characterizes assessments (Three-Dimensional Learning Assessment Protocol, see above) and another that looks at both what is being taught in the classroom as well as how it is being taught (Three-Dimensional Learning Observation Protocol).

This project has also created a new competitive fellowship program in which the awarded fellows work with each other, other members of their department, and education researchers to study and/or improve their own courses.

Transforming introductory physics laboratories to discovery-based experiences

Martinez, Tessmer, Sawtelle, Caballero

The goals of many physics laboratory experiences are often tacit and ill-defined. Combining this with the sheer numbers of students and teaching assistants needed often results in introductory physics laboratories that are confirmation-driven and not necessarily aligned with the tacit goals of the faculty.

In a transformation project, funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, we aim to develop laboratory activities that move students into exploratory experiences, which leverage modeling, data, and argumentation. The initial steps of this project include developing consensus learning goals that make the explicit the goals that faculty hold, and the development of pilot laboratory activities to be tested in a subset of laboratory sections.

This project will document student experiences through classroom observation and interviews as well as their developing/changing attitudes and beliefs about the nature of science by using the E-CLASS. In addition, we will evaluate the outcomes of this transformation project through newly developed assessments that interrogate how student use different scientific practices (e.g., modeling and argumentation).

Professional development of graduate teaching assistants

Caballero, Sawtelle, Tessmer

At MSU, graduate students form the teaching corps for many of our introductory physics courses. Helping our graduate students develop their teaching practice is a central mission of the physics and astronomy graduate program. In this project, we continually develop professional development workshops and activities that new and returning graduate teaching assistants engage with in order to develop their instructional practice.

These activities focus on helping graduate student instructors develop into reflective practitioners who can (a) anticipate student difficulties and challenges with physics content and practice, (b) respond with appropriate support and scaffolding to support student understanding, and (c) reflect on their own teaching practices for the purpose of improving future teaching.