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News Archive

PERL members publish paper on P-Cubed Course

Release Date: Dec 4, 2020

PERL professors Paul Irving, Daryl McPadden, and Danny Caballero published Communities of practice as a curriculum design theory in an introductory physics class for engineers in Physical Review Physics Education Research.

Abstract: The communities of practice framework has become an essential framework for understanding identity development both in physics education research (PER) and in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, more broadly. However, the use of communities of practice as a learning theory that informs curriculum design is significantly less prevalent within the PER community. One possible reason for this is that communities of practice as a theory originated in professional environments and it subsequently moved towards a framework that is centered around informing management practices. Some significant interpretations and negotiations need to be completed in order to apply and to design for communities of practice in the classroom environment. In this paper, we outline an introductory physics course called Projects and Practices in Physics (P-Cubed) that was designed using the communities of practice as a guiding framework. We present the curriculum decisions that focus specifically on the adaption process from professional practice to the classroom context along with the theoretical underpinnings of the curriculum design decisions that went into the development of the P-Cubed classroom.

PERL members publish paper on epistemological beliefs in University Modeling Instruction

Release Date: Dec 4, 2020

PERL members Daryl McPadden, Camila Monsalve, and Vashti Sawtelle published Productive faculty resources activated by curricular materials: An example of epistemological beliefs in University Modeling Instruction in Physical Review Physics Education Research.

[This paper is part of the Focused Collection on Curriculum Development: Theory into Design.] When disseminating curricula, typically only the physical curriculum materials are transferred from the instructor to another. However, left as artifacts in the curricula are a set of epistemological beliefs held by the creators and designers of the materials. These epistemological beliefs are often underpinning the activity structures and strongly influence how the curriculum materials are implemented in the classroom, particularly when those beliefs differ from those activated by the instructor. In this paper, we articulate three epistemological beliefs that are built into the University Modeling Instruction curriculum that are essential for running the large-group discussions, which are a crucial part of the curriculum. We highlight how these beliefs are built into the student-facing and instructor-facing curricular materials and the influence of these beliefs in the interpretation and implementation of the curriculum materials. Finally, we discuss the implications on curriculum dissemination, on the adoption and adaptation of curriculum materials, and training models for instructors beyond the curriculum designers.

MSU and UiO collaboration publishes paper on predicting time to graduation

Release Date: Nov 13, 2020

A team of researchers from the University of Oslo and Michigan State including PhD student, John Aiken (lead author), and PERL co-director, Danny Caballero, published Predicting time to graduation at a large enrollment American university in PLOS One.

Abstract: The time it takes a student to graduate with a university degree is mitigated by a variety of factors such as their background, the academic performance at university, and their integration into the social communities of the university they attend. Different universities have different populations, student services, instruction styles, and degree programs, however, they all collect institutional data. This study presents data for 160,933 students attending a large American research university. The data includes performance, enrollment, demographics, and preparation features. Discrete time hazard models for the time-to-graduation are presented in the context of Tinto’s Theory of Drop Out. Additionally, a novel machine learning method: gradient boosted trees, is applied and compared to the typical maximum likelihood method. We demonstrate that enrollment factors (such as changing a major) lead to greater increases in model predictive performance of when a student graduates than performance factors (such as grades) or preparation (such as high school GPA).

PERL Members Publish 6 PERC Papers

Release Date: Sep 23, 2020

We're proud to announce that the PERL Team has contributed to 6 PERC Papers in 2020.

Implementing a mixed-methods approach to understand students’ self-efficacy: A pilot study

Rachel Henderson and Vashti Sawtelle

2020 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, pp. 204-209, doi:10.1119/perc.2020.pr.Henderson

An Investigation of Degree Pathways for Students of Color with Transfer Credits

Camila Monsalve, Rachel Henderson, and Vashti Sawtelle

2020 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, pp. 352-357, doi:10.1119/perc.2020.pr.Monsalve

Student perspective about the impacts of feedback

Carissa Myers, Rachel Henderson, Daryl McPadden, and Paul W. Irving

2020 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, pp. 364-369, doi:10.1119/perc.2020.pr.Myers

Understanding physics identity development through the identity performances of Black, Indigenous, and women of color and LGBTQ+ women in physics

Xandria R. Quichocho, Erin M. Schipull, and Eleanor W. Close

2020 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, pp. 412-417, doi:10.1119/perc.2020.pr.Quichocho

Perspectives on informal programs: How site visits can help us learn more

Bryan Stanley, Dena Izadi, and Kathleen A. Hinko

2020 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, pp. 503-508, doi:10.1119/perc.2020.pr.Stanley

Extending Learning Beyond the Planetarium with the Dome+ Model

Jesica L. Trucks, Kathleen A. Hinko, and Shannon Schmoll

2020 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, pp. 545-550, doi:10.1119/perc.2020.pr.Trucks

New members fall 2020

Release Date: Sep 2, 2020

Welcome to our newest members

  • Graduate student, Xandria Quichocho, who joins us from Texas State University.
  • Post-doctoral researchers Missy Cosby and Jesica Trucks. Missy and Jesica joined us in the spring.

and congratulations to some of our members

  • Former PERL post-doctoral researcher Rachel Henderson has joined PERL as a faculty member.
  • PERL co-director Vashti Sawtelle earned tenure this summer.
  • PERL co-director Danny Caballero is now also a faculty member in the Department of Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering (CMSE).

Brean and Katie publish paper on understanding identity development in informal physics programs

Release Date: Aug 27, 2020

PERL members Brean Prefontaine and Katie Hinko published Community of practice approach for understanding identity development within informal physics programs in Physical Review Physics Education Research.

Abstract: Studies on physics identity have shown that it is one of the main factors that can predict a person’s persistence in the field; therefore, studying physics identity is critical to increase diversity within the field of physics and to understand what changes can allow more women and minorities to identify with the field. In this study, we investigate informal physics programs as spaces for physics identity exploration. These programs provide unique conditions under which to study physics identity development along with other identities. Informal physics spaces allow for voluntary engagement, as well as elements of agency and autonomy within the exploration of physics. Thus, these spaces allow an identity to form outside of the constraints traditionally found in academic settings. In this work, we operationalized the community of practice framework to study the development of physics identities within university students who facilitate informal physics programs. We present the stories from two physics graduate students out of our sample to provide a context for testing the feasibility of the extended framework and to identify how experiences within an informal physics program can shape physics identity development. This paper presents the operationalized constructs within the community of practice framework, how these constructs are applied to the narrated experiences of our participants and highlights how we can use this framework to understand the nuances of physics identity development as well as the factors that can influence that development.

Danny Publishes Paper Analyzing the PERC Proceedings

Release Date: Jun 29, 2020

PERL co-director Danny Caballero and colleagues published Thematic analysis of 18 years of physics education research conference proceedings using natural language processing in Physical Review Physics Education Research.

Abstract: We have used an unsupervised machine learning method called latent Dirichlet allocation (LDA) to thematically analyze all papers published in the Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings between 2001 and 2018. By looking at co-occurrences of words across the data corpus, this technique has allowed us to identify ten distinct themes or “topics” that have seen varying levels of prevalence in physics education research (PER) over time and to rate the distribution of these topics within each paper. Our analysis suggests that although all identified topics have seen sustained interest over time, PER has also seen several waves of increased interest in certain topics, beginning with initial interest in qualitative, theory-building studies of student understanding, which gave way to a focus on problem solving in the late 2000s. Since 2010 the field has seen a shift toward more sociocultural views of teaching and learning with a particular focus on communities of practice, student identities, and institutional change. Based on these results, we suggest that unsupervised text analysis techniques like LDA may hold promise for providing quantitative, independent, and replicable analyses of educational research literature.

Vashti earns tenure

Release Date: Jun 26, 2020

PERL co-director Vashti Sawtelle has been awarded tenure. Congratulations, Vashti!

PERL professors publish paper about LA approaches to teaching computational physics problems

Release Date: Jun 19, 2020

PERL alumna Alanna Pawlak and PERL professors Paul Irving and Danny Caballero published Learning assistant approaches to teaching computational physics problems in a problem-based learning course in Physical Review Physics Education Research.

Abstract: An increasing number of introductory physics courses are seeking to incorporate “authentic practices,” and a large area of focus in this trend is the incorporation of computational problems into the curriculum. These problems offer students an opportunity to engage with the programming practices and numerical problem-solving methods used by physicists. Understanding how instructors approach teaching such problems is essential for improving instruction and problem design. We conducted a phenomenographic study using semistructured interviews with undergraduate learning assistants in a problem-based introductory mechanics course that incorporates several computational problems. The learning assistants’ prior involvement as students, along with their relatively fewer experiences with programming and physics compared to the faculty instructors, give them a unique perspective on teaching in the course. We present here the results of our analysis: the identification of four approaches that learning assistants make take to teaching computational problems in this course. These approaches, programming focus, learning physics via computation focus, computation as a tool focus, and shifting perceptions of learning focus, provide a lens for understanding the different ways learning assistants perceive computation, the degree to which they take up course-intended learning goals surrounding computation, the factors that may impact the approaches they take, and how we might affect their approaches through training and support.

Rachel publishes two papers about modified module analysis

Release Date: May 1, 2020

Rachel publishes two papers about modified module analysis in Physical Review Physics Education Research: Extending modified module analysis to include correct responses: Analysis of the Force Concept Inventory & Exploring the structure of misconceptions in the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation with modified module analysis.

Extending modified module analysis to include correct responses: Analysis of the Force Concept Inventory

Abstract: Brewe, Bruun, and Bearden first applied network analysis to understand patterns of incorrect conceptual physics reasoning in multiple-choice instruments introducing the module analysis for multiple-choice responses (MAMCR) algorithm. Wells et al. proposed an extension to the algorithm which allowed the analysis of large datasets called modified module analysis (MMA). This method analyzed the network structure of the correlation matrix of the responses to a multiple-choice instrument. Both MAMCR and MMA could only be applied to networks of incorrect responses. In this study, an extension of MMA is explored which allows the analysis of networks involving both correct and incorrect responses. The extension analyzes the network structure of the partial correlation matrix instead of the correlation matrix. The new algorithm, called MMA-P, was applied to the FCI and recovered much of the structure identified by MMA. The algorithm also identified sets of correct answers requiring similar physical reasoning reported in previous studies. Beyond groups of all correct and all incorrect responses, some groups of responses which mixed correct and incorrect responses were also identified. Some of these mixed response groups were produced when a correct response was selected for incorrect reasons; some of the groups were related to the gender unfair items previously reported for the FCI.

Exploring the structure of misconceptions in the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation with modified module analysis

Abstract: Investigating student learning and understanding of conceptual physics is a primary research area within physics education research. Multiple quantitative methods have been employed to analyze commonly used mechanics conceptual inventories: the Force Concept Inventory (FCI) and the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE). Recently, researchers have applied network analytic techniques to explore the structure of the incorrect responses to the FCI identifying communities of incorrect responses which could be mapped on to common misconceptions. In this study, the method used to analyze the FCI, modified module analysis was applied to a large sample of FMCE pretest and post-test responses (Npre=3956, Npost=3719). The communities of incorrect responses identified were consistent with the item groups described in previous works. As in the work with the FCI, the network was simplified by only retaining nodes selected by a substantial number of students. Retaining as nodes only those incorrect answer choices selected by at least 20% of the students produced communities associated with only four misconceptions. The incorrect response communities identified for men and women were substantially different, as was the change in these communities from pretest to post-test. The 20% threshold was far more restrictive than the 4% threshold applied to the FCI in the prior work that generated similar structures. Retaining nodes selected by 5% or 10% of students generated a large number of complex communities. The communities identified at the 10% threshold were generally associated with common misconceptions producing a far richer set of incorrect communities than the FCI; this may indicate that the FMCE is a superior instrument for characterizing the breadth of student misconceptions about Newtonian mechanics.

Danny publishes white paper about advancing the integration of computational thinking in science

Release Date: Feb 12, 2020

PERL co-director Danny Caballero and colleagues published a white paper titled Advancing Interdisciplinary Integration of Computational Thinking in Science.

PERL Members Publish 16 PERC Papers

Release Date: Jan 15, 2020

We're proud to announce that the PERL Team has contributed to 16 PERC Papers in 2019.

Student-identified themes around computation in high school physics

Theodore E. Bott, Daniel P. Weller, Marcos D. Caballero, and Paul W. Irving

2019 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2019.pr.Bott

How do previous coding experiences influence undergraduate physics students?

Jacqueline N. Bumler, Paul C. Hamerski, Marcos D. Caballero, and Paul W. Irving

2019 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2019.pr.Bumler

A longitudinal exploration of students’ beliefs about experimental physics

Rachel Henderson, Kelsey Funkhouser, and Marcos D. Caballero

2019 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2019.pr.Henderson

Differences in the predictive power of pretest scores of students underrepresented in physics

Dona Sachini Hewagallage, John Stewart, and Rachel Henderson

2019 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2019.pr.Hewagallage

Developing an organizational framework for informal physics programs

2019 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2019.pr.Izadi

Why it should be ‘and’ not ‘or’: Physics and music

Claire Mullen, Claudia Fracchiolla, Brean Prefontaine, and Kathleen A. Hinko

2019 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2019.pr.Mullen

Quantifying the linguistic persistence of high and low performers in an online student forum

Carissa Myers, Elizabeth Fox, Adrienne L. Traxler, and Andrew Gavrin

2019 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2019.pr.Myers

Computational Essays: An Avenue for Scientific Creativity in Physics

Tor Ole B. Odden and Marcos D. Caballero

2019 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2019.pr.Odden

Scientific Practices in Minimally Working Programs

Dan P. Oleynik and Paul W. Irving

2019 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2019.pr.Oleynik

Supporting multiple identities in informal spaces: Examining design choice

Brean Prefontaine and Kathleen A. Hinko

2019 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2019.pr.Prefontaine

Understanding university students’ identity through engagement in informal physics programs

Caleb Rispler, Brean Prefontaine, and Kathleen A. Hinko

2019 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2019.pr.Rispler

Hidden value: Investigating the physics demonstration as aesthetic experience

Sydney Seese, Megan Halpern, and Kathleen A. Hinko

2019 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2019.pr.Seese

Teachers' intended learning outcomes around computation in high school physics

Daniel P. Weller, Marcos D. Caballero, and Paul W. Irving

2019 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2019.pr.Weller

Challenges in study design for characterizing the informal physics landscape

Julia Willison, Dena Izadi, Issac Ward, Kathleen A. Hinko, and Claudia Fracchiolla

2019 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2019.pr.Willison

Using machine learning to understand physics graduate school admissions

Nicholas T. Young and Marcos D. Caballero

2019 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2019.pr.Young

Danny publishes paper about physics computational literacy and computational essays

Release Date: Dec 27, 2019

PERL co-director Danny Caballero paper titled Physics computational literacy: An exploratory case study using computational essays in Physical Review Physics Education Research. 

Abstract: Computation is becoming an increasingly important part of physics education. However, there are currently few theories of learning that can be used to help explain and predict the unique challenges and affordances associated with computation in physics. In this study, we adapt the existing theory of computational literacy, which posits that computational learning can be divided into material, cognitive, and social aspects, to the context of undergraduate physics. Based on an exploratory study of undergraduate physics computational literacy, using a newly developed teaching tool known as a computational essay, we have identified a variety of student practices, knowledge, and beliefs across these three aspects of computational literacy. We illustrate these categories with data collected from students who engaged in an initial implementation of computational essays in a 3rd-semester electricity and magnetism class. We conclude by arguing that this framework can be used to theoretically diagnose student difficulties with computation, distinguish educational approaches that focus on material vs cognitive aspects of computational literacy, and highlight the benefits and limitations of open-ended projects like computational essays to student learning.

Dr. Michael Obsniuk Defends His PhD!

Release Date: Dec 6, 2019

Dr. Michael Obsniuk successfully defended his PhD. His thesis title is “Identifying and defining computational practices in introductory physics.” Congratulations, Michael!

PERL members win teaching awards

Release Date: Nov 22, 2019

PERL members Paul Irving, Paul Hamerski, and Ashleigh Leary have won College of Natural Science teaching awards. Paul Irving received the Norman L. and Olga K. Fritz Excellence in Teaching Award,  Paul Hamerski received the College of Natural Science Excellence-in-Teaching Citation, and Ashleigh Leary received the College of Natural Science Undergraduate Learning Assistant Award.

Vashti publishes paper about how students seek disciplinary coherence in introductory physics for life science

Release Date: Nov 12, 2019

PERL co-director Vashti Sawtelle and colleagues published Bridging the gaps: How students seek disciplinary coherence in introductory physics for life science in Physical Review Physics Education Research.

Abstract: Students in one discipline often receive their scientific training from faculty in other disciplines. As a result of tacit disciplinary differences, especially as implemented in courses at the introductory college level, such students can have difficulty in understanding the nature of the knowledge they are learning in a discipline that they do not identify as their own. We developed a course in introductory physics for life science (IPLS) students that attempts to help them cross disciplinary boundaries. By analyzing student reasoning during recitation sections and interviews, we identified three broad ways in which students in our course meaningfully crossed boundaries: (i) by unpacking biochemical heuristics in terms of underlying physical interactions, (ii) by locating both biochemical and physical concepts within a mathematical bridging expression, and (iii) by coordinating functional and mechanistic explanations for the same biological phenomenon. Drawing on episodes from case-study interviews and in-class problem-solving sessions, we illustrate how each of these types of boundary crossing involves the coordination of students’ conceptual and epistemological resources from physics, chemistry, and biology in distinct but complementary ways. Together, these boundary crossing categories form a theoretical framework for classifying student coherence seeking. We explore how the IPLS course helps our life science students fill in the gaps that exist between traditional introductory courses, by finding and exploring questions that might otherwise fall through disciplinary cracks. By identifying these types of explanatory coherence, we hope to suggest ways of inviting life science students to participate in physics and see physics as a tool for making sense of the living world.

Nick publishes paper characterizing mathematical problem solving in physics-related workplaces

Release Date: Sep 24, 2019

Nick Young and colleagues published Characterizing mathematical problem solving in physics-related workplaces using epistemic games in Physical Review Physics Education Research.

Abstract: In order to support physics students in their future careers, there is a need to understand the relationship between undergraduate education and professional practice in physics-related fields. This study investigated high-level goal driven mathematical problem-solving activities that are found within two disciplinary cultures: physical science research labs in academia and photonics workplaces in industry. We conducted semistructured interviews with 10 Ph.D. students and 22 engineers and technicians. Math use in professional workplaces was characterized through an adaptation of epistemic games framework, which revealed six common epistemic games in these workplaces: conceptual math modeling, analytical-numerical math modeling, design-oriented math modeling, fabrication, improving processes, and making meaning out of data games. The workplace-specific epistemic games capture the goals, starting and ending conditions, constraints and contextual features, moves, tools, and representations. The games involve a broad spectrum of math that ranges from arithmetic to computational modeling. The games reveal how goals and particular contextual features impact approaches to mathematical problem solving. The findings extend prior work on mathematical problem solving in physics to a new population of professional researchers, engineers, and technicians in their workplaces. The research may guide new approaches for developing problems and explicitly teaching problem solving in diverse physics contexts, which may additionally benefit undergraduate students’ preparation for their future careers.

Rachel publishes paper exploring the structure of misconceptions in the Force Concept Inventory with modified module analysis

Release Date: Sep 3, 2019

Rachel and collaborators publish paper exploring the structure of misconceptions in the Force Concept Inventory with modified module analysis in Physical Review Physics Education Research.

Abstract: Module analysis for multiple-choice responses (MAMCR) was applied to a large sample of Force Concept Inventory (FCI) pretest and post-test responses (Npre=4509 and Npost=4716) to replicate the results of the original MAMCR study and to understand the origins of the gender differences reported in a previous study of this dataset. When the results of MAMCR could not be replicated, a modification of the method was introduced, modified module analysis (MMA). MMA was productive in understanding the structure of the incorrect answers in the FCI, identifying 9 groups of incorrect answers on the pretest and 11 groups on the post-test. These groups, in most cases, could be mapped on to common misconceptions used by the authors of the FCI to create distractors for the instrument. Of these incorrect answer groups, 6 of the pretest groups and 8 of the post-test groups were the same for men and women. Two of the male-only pretest groups disappeared with instruction while the third male-only pretest group was identified for both men and women postinstruction. Three of the groups identified for both men and women on the post-test were not present for either on the pretest. The rest of the identified incorrect answer groups did not represent misconceptions, but were rather related to the blocked structure of some FCI items where multiple items are related to a common stem. The groups identified had little relation to the gender unfair items previously identified for this dataset, and therefore, differences in the structure of student misconceptions between men and women cannot explain the gender differences reported for the FCI.

Abhilash and Vashti publish paper about operationalizing relevance in physics education

Release Date: Sep 3, 2019

PERL alumnus Abhilash Nair and PERL co-director Vashti Sawtelle publish Operationalizing relevance in physics education: Using a systems view to expand our conception of making physics relevant in Physical Review Physics Education Research.

Abstract: A common hope of many physics educators and researchers is that students leave the course with a stronger sense that physics is relevant to them than when they entered the course. Multiple survey measures have attempted to measure shifts in students’ beliefs on the relevance of physics but frequently the results show a negative shift in students’ beliefs and are often reported as a failure of students to “see the relevance.” We challenge this view by highlighting the limitations of attitudinal and epistemological surveys’ ability to probe relevance. We then articulate a more expansive view of relevance using ecological systems theory that serves as a lens we apply to analyze students’ experiences. Instead of deficit-framing students’ abilities or challenging their beliefs about the relevance of physics, we show how incorporating their rich disciplinary experiences can make physics classrooms truly more relevant.

PERL welcomes new members

Release Date: Aug 28, 2019

PERL welcomes 4 new graduate students and 1 new research associate for the 2019 academic year.

In addition, former PERL research associate Daryl McPadden has now joined the PERL faculty as an assistant professor.

Alyssa Waterson is a graduate student with PERL. She earned her bachelor's degree degree in physics from Michigan State University.

Bryan Stanley is a graduate student with PERL. He earned his bachelor's degree in physics from Colorado State University.

Camila Monsalve is a graduate student with PERL. She earned her bachelor's degrees in physics and biology from Florida International University.

Carissa Myers is a graduate student with PERL. She earned her bachelor's degree in physics from Wright State University. She has won the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and the MSU Early Start Fellowship.

Paul Bergeron is a research associate with PERL. He earned his PhD in physics from the University of Utah.

Danny publishes paper on PICUP

Release Date: Aug 23, 2019

PERL co-director Danny Caballero published a paper in the The Physics Teacher titled PICUP: A Community of Teachers Integrating Computation into Undergraduate Physics Courses.

Abstract: The need to integrate computation into the physics curriculum has long been established: using simulations and computational modeling can enhance students’ conceptual understanding, and the computational skills students acquire are both useful and necessary in their careers. However, making changes to an established physics course is a challenge on many fronts: instructors need to be comfortable with their own computational skills, they need time to find and adapt appropriate materials, and they may have questions about how to integrate computation into their course(s). The Partnership for Integration of Computation into Undergraduate Physics (PICUP) was organized to identify the barriers underlying these challenges, to document the current state of computation use in physics courses, and to explore avenues to reach and engage physics teachers.

Katie publishes paper on deconstructing black physics identity

Release Date: Aug 9, 2019

PERL professor Katie Hinko and collaborators have published an article in Physical Review Physics Education Research titled Deconstructing Black physics identity: Linking individual and social constructs using the critical physics identity framework.

Abstract: Understanding the ways in which Black folks identify as physicists can provide useful information about the facets of the physics discipline that perpetuate systems of oppression. In prior work, we developed the critical physics identity (CPI) framework to identify the structures and systems that impact the ways that people identify with the physics discipline. In this paper, we apply the CPI to deconstruct the factors that influence physics identity for a sample of undergraduate, graduate, and professional Black physicists. Using the CPI constructs, we classify important internal and external factors that influence how they identify, or not, as a physics person. We find that racialized resources were more influential than physics identity constructs, and document the subcodes of each CPI construct that are discussed most frequently among participants. We note variations between early and later career physicists and between men and women.

Dr. Kelsey Funkhouser Defends Her PhD!

Release Date: Jul 16, 2019

Dr. Kelsey Funkhouser successfully defended her PhD. Her thesis title is “Examining Physics Identity in Laboratory Settings Through Survey Development.” Congratulations, Kelsey!

PERL Members Alexis Knaub, John Aiken, and Danny Caballero curate focused collection on quantitative methods in PER

Release Date: Jul 3, 2019

PERL Members Alexis Knaub, John Aiken, and Danny Caballero curate focused collection on quantitative methods in PER. You can read about the collection here.

Alexis and John also have a paper included in the collection titled "Two-phase study examining perspectives and use of quantitative methods in physics education research"

Abstract: While other fields such as statistics and education have examined various issues with quantitative work, few studies in physics education research (PER) have done so. We conducted a two-phase study to identify and to understand the extent of these issues in quantitative PER. During phase 1, we conducted a focus group of three experts in this area, followed by six interviews. Subsequent interviews refined our plan. Both the focus group and interviews revealed issues regarding the lack of details in sample descriptions, lack of institutional or course contextual information, lack of reporting on limitation, and overgeneralization or overstatement of conclusions. During phase 2, we examined 72 manuscripts that used four conceptual or attitudinal assessments (Force Concept Inventory, Conceptual Survey of Electricity and Magnetism, Brief Electricity and Magnetism Assessment, and Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey). Manuscripts were coded on whether they featured various sample descriptions, institutional or course context information, limitations, and whether they overgeneralized conclusions. We also analyzed the data to see if reporting has changed from the earlier periods to more recent times. We found that not much has changed regarding sample descriptions and institutional or course context information, but reporting and overgeneralizing conclusions have improved over time. We offer some questions for researchers, reviewers, and readers in PER to consider when conducting or using quantitative work.

Rachel publishes article about gender gap on conceptual inventories

Release Date: May 28, 2019

PERL postdoc Rachel Henderson and collaborators publish an article in Physical Review Physics Education Research titled Partitioning the gender gap in physics conceptual inventories: Force Concept Inventory, Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation, and Conceptual Survey of Electricity and Magnetism.

Abstract: Over the last decade, the “gender gap” in physics conceptual inventory scores has been extensively studied by the physics education research community. Researchers have identified many factors that influence the overall differences in post-test scores between men and women. More recently, it has been shown that the Force Concept Inventory (FCI) contains eight items that are substantially unfair; six are unfair to women, two are unfair to men. The Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE) and the Conceptual Survey of Electricity and Magnetism (CSEM), however, contain fewer unfair items. In this work, results from prior studies are used to further explore the gender gap in five large samples of conceptual inventory data: the FCI (N1=3663), the FMCE (N2=2551, N3=3719), and the CSEM (N4=1767, N5=2439). The gender gap in these samples is partitioned into four components: the gender gap resulting from the student’s academic performance, the gender gap resulting from prior preparation in physics, the gender gap resulting from instrumental fairness, and the gender gap of students with equal academic performance and physics preparation on the fair instrument. For all samples, very little of the gender gap was explained by differences in academic performance between men and women, measured by ACT or SAT math percentile scores or physics test average. The percentage of the gender gap resulting from instrumental fairness varied across samples from 30% in the FCI to 2% to 6% in the CSEM. A substantial part of the gender gap in four of the five samples (30%–40%) was explained by differences in prior physics preparation, measured by pretest scores on the conceptual inventories. Further correcting for conceptual physics prior preparation using the post-test score in the previous class reduced gender differences substantially.

Learning Machine Lab publishes paper on modeling student pathways in a physics program

Release Date: May 15, 2019

PERL members John Aiken, Rachel Henderson, and Danny Caballero have published an article in Physical Review Physics Education Research titled Modeling Student Pathways in a Physics Bachelor's Degree Program.

Abstract: Physics education research (PER) has used quantitative modeling techniques to explore learning, affect, and other aspects of physics education. However, these studies have rarely examined the predictive output of the models, instead focusing on the inferences or causal relationships observed in various data sets. This research introduces a modern predictive modeling approach to the PER community using transcript data for students declaring physics majors at Michigan State University. Using a machine learning model, this analysis demonstrates that students who switch from a physics degree program to an engineering degree program do not take the third semester course in thermodynamics and modern physics, and may take engineering courses while registered as a physics major. Performance in introductory physics and calculus courses, measured by grade as well as a students’ declared gender and ethnicity play a much smaller role relative to the other features included in the model. These results are used to compare traditional statistical analysis to a more modern modeling approach.

Angie and collaborators publish on mindset applicability

Release Date: May 10, 2019

PERL members  Angie Little, Bridget Humphrey, Abigail Green, Abhilash Nair, and Vashti Sawtelle published an article in Physical Review Physics Education Research titled Exploring mindset’s applicability to students’ experiences with challenge in transformed college physics courses.

Abstract: The mindset literature is a longstanding area of psychological research focused on beliefs about intelligence, response to challenge, and goals for learning. However, the mindset literature’s applicability to the context of college physics has not been widely studied. In this paper we narrow our focus toward students’ descriptions of their responses to challenge in college physics. We ask the research question, “can we see responses to challenge in college physics that resemble that of the mindset literature?” In addressing this question, it is also necessary to ask, “how do students express evidence of challenge?” and “to what extent is this evidence similar or different to the mindset literature?” To answer these questions, we developed a novel coding scheme for interview dialogue around college physics challenge and students’ responses to it. In this paper we present the development process of our coding scheme. We find that it is possible to see student descriptions of their responses to challenge that resemble the mindset literature’s characterizations. However, college physics challenges are frequently different than those studied in the mindset literature. We show that, in the landscape of college physics challenges, mindset beliefs cannot always be considered to be the dominant factor in how students respond to challenge. Broadly, our coding scheme helps the field move beyond broad Likert-scale survey measures of students’ mindset beliefs.

PERL Undergrad Matt Ring helps create MSU Physics Education in Ghana Initiative

Release Date: Mar 14, 2019

Undergraduate students Gabriel Moreau, Evan Brook, Dylan Smith, Aalayah Spencer, and Matt Ring have recently created the MSU Physics Education in Ghana Initiative in the Department of Physics and Astronomy under the guidance of Associate Professor Danny Caballero. This initiative started upon learning about the highly theoretical structure of high school physics education in many African countries due in part to the high cost of laboratory equipment.

The purpose of this initiative is to help Ghanaian high schools provide laboratory experiences to enrich student learning. To achieve this goal, the team has met with the Department of Education Abroad to establish contacts in Ghanaian universities and the Ministry of Education. Travel to Ghana is planned for May, with the purpose of the visit being to meet with contacts and better understand the needs of Ghanaian students. A return visit is planned for this Fall to begin implementing the initiative’s education program.

Funding has been acquired from a variety of sources, including the Year of Global Africa min-grant, Honors College Conference Travel Awards, and the Honors College Giving Back Competition. The NSCL, FRIB, and Department of Physics and Astronomy also matched some of the funding the students received. Total support for the project comes out to $9,200, which will help this project.

Way to go Matt!

Vashti wins Spirit of Ability Award

Release Date: Mar 12, 2019

PERL co-director Vashti Sawtelle has won the Spirit of Ability Award. The award "commemorates the empowering heritage of founders who saw beyond disabilities. They opened higher education to people whose disabilities were commonly perceived to preclude excellence. Honorees are contemporary leaders who continue this MSU tradition of creating vibrant environments that welcome, fortify, and compassionately challenge each person to reach their fullest ability."

Vashti will be on honored at an awards ceremony on Friday, April 5th, 2019 at 1pm in Big 10A at the Kellogg Center. Congratulations, Vashti!

Learning Machines Lab publishes paper on factors predictive of faculty integrating computation into physics courses

Release Date: Feb 20, 2019

PERL members Nick Young, Grant Allen, John Aiken, Rachel Henderson, and Danny Caballero have published an article in Physical Review Physics Education Research titled Identifying features predictive of faculty integrating computation into physics courses.

Abstract: Computation is a central aspect of 21st century physics practice; it is used to model complicated systems, to simulate impossible experiments, and to analyze mountains of data. Physics departments and their faculty are increasingly recognizing the importance of teaching computation to their students. We recently completed a national survey of faculty in physics departments to understand the state of computational instruction and the factors that underlie that instruction. The data collected from the faculty responding to the survey included a variety of scales, binary questions, and numerical responses. We then used random forest, a supervised learning technique, to explore the factors that are most predictive of whether a faculty member decides to include computation in their physics courses. We find that experience using computation with students in their research, or lack thereof and various personal beliefs to be most predictive of a faculty member having experience teaching computation. Interestingly, we find demographic and departmental factors to be less useful factors in our model. The results of this study inform future efforts to promote greater integration of computation into the physics curriculum as well as comment on the current state of computational instruction across the United States.

Dena wins Art Lab Grant

Release Date: Feb 12, 2019

Postdoc Dena Izadi has won a grant from MSU's Broad Art Lab for her project "The Schrodinger’s Cat is in Town!"

My proposal for a project called ‘The Schrodinger’s Cat is in Town!’ is accepted. We aim to use ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ as a popular scientific character to publicize our event and attract the public with little or no exposure to the ‘black box of physics’.
I will organize a series of 2-hour public workshops that brings together physicists, artists and the public in a venue that physics phenomena can be communicated through art. The activities will take place in several groups and the best work is selected by the public. At the end of the session, participants will engage in an open discussion of how art can act as a powerful medium to visualize science, or, perhaps even create a new landscape merging both art and science.

Vashti and Abhilash Publish Article About Epistemological progress in physics and its impact on biology

Release Date: Jan 22, 2019

PERL co-director Vashti Sawtelle, PERL alumni Abhilash Nair, and colleagues have published an article in Physical Review Physics Education Research titled Epistemological progress in physics and its impact on biology.


Epistemologically oriented reforms of physics courses aim to change the way students think about knowledge and approach learning in physics. A broader goal of these reforms is to impact how students think about knowledge and learning in other courses. We investigate the effects of epistemological reforms in a physics course on knowing and learning in biology courses through a case study of a biology major, Phillip, who was enrolled in a year-long reformed introductory physics for the life sciences (IPLS) course. First, we show that Phillip’s epistemological framing of the physics course became more sophisticated, aligning with reforms designed to emphasize reasoning with foundational principles, seeking meaning and coherence. He also developed an approach to learning physics that involved coordinating understanding between course readings and class discussions and reconciling discrepancies with peers and the teaching assistant. Second, we present evidence of the impact of this new epistemological framing on Phillip’s interpretation of his biology courses. Before the year in physics, Phillip framed his biology courses as about understanding. By the end of the year, Phillip reversed his stance on biology learning, reporting that he had actually been memorizing all this time. We discuss these results to highlight the success of epistemological reforms in physics beyond the confines of the physics classroom, to motivate attention epistemological reform beyond physics, and to offer suggestions for how IPLS courses can work towards creating epistemological connections to other disciplines.

PERL Members Publish 16 PERC Papers

Release Date: Jan 21, 2019

We're proud to announce that the PERL Team has contributed to 16 PERC Papers in 2018. Please see below for the complete list. Read all of the papers!

What counts in laboratories: Toward a practice-based identity survey

Kelsey Funkhouser, Marcos D. Caballero, Paul W. Irving, and Vashti Sawtelle

2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Funkhouse

Denoting and Comparing Leadership Attributes and Behaviors in Group Work

Kristina Griswold, Daryl McPadden, Marcos D. Caballero, and Paul W. Irving

2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Griswold

Learning Assistants as constructors of feedback: How are they impacted?

Paul C. Hamerski, Paul W. Irving, and Daryl McPadden

2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Hamerski

Rural and First Generation Performance Differences on the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation

Rachel Henderson, Cabot Zabriskie, and John Stewart

2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Henderson

Performing Physics: An Analysis of Design-Based Informal STEAM Education Programs

Simone Hyater-Adams, Noah D. Finkelstein, and Kathleen A. Hinko

2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Hyater-Adams

The difficulties associated with integrating computation into undergraduate physics.

Ashleigh Leary, Paul W. Irving, and Marcos D. Caballero

2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Leary

Feedback as a mechanism for improving students’ communication skills

Daryl McPadden, Paul C. Hamerski, Marcos D. Caballero, and Paul W. Irving

2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2018.pr.McPadden

An uncommon case of relevance through everyday experiences

Abhilash Nair and Vashti Sawtelle

2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Nair

Intense Outreach: Experiences Shifting University Students’ Identities

Brean Prefontaine, Claudia Fracchiolla, Manuel Vasquez, and Kathleen A. Hinko

2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Prefontaine

How computation can facilitate sensemaking about physics: A case study

Odd Petter Sand, Tor Ole B. Odden, Christine Lindstrøm, and Marcos D. Caballero

2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Sand

Examining the relationship between student performance and video interactions

Robert Solli, John M. Aiken, Rachel Henderson, and Marcos D. Caballero

2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Solli

Investigating complementary computational and empirical activities for students learning diffusion

Daniel P. Weller, Kathleen A. Hinko, and Vashti Sawtelle

2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Weller

The Intersection of Identity and Performing Arts of Black Physicists

Tamia Williams, Simone Hyater-Adams, Kathleen A. Hinko, Claudia Fracchiolla, Kerstin Nordstrom, and Noah D. Finkelstein

2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Williams

Researching Experiences in a Cohort Program to Influence Self-Efficacy

Laura A. Wood, Angela Little, and Vashti Sawtelle

2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Wood

Characterizing Models of Informal Physics Programs

Claudia Fracchiolla, Noah D. Finkelstein, and Kathleen A. Hinko

2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Fracchiolla

A Design-Based Informal Physics Program from a Youth Perspective

Brett Fiedler, Claudia Fracchiolla, Michael B. Bennett, Kathleen A. Hinko, and Noah D. Finkelstein

2018 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, doi:10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Fiedler

Danny publishes paper about prevalence and nature of computational instruction

Release Date: Dec 20, 2018

PERL co-director Danny Caballero and collaborator Laura Merner have published an article in Physical Review Physics Education Research titled Prevalence and nature of computational instruction in undergraduate physics programs across the United States.

Abstract: A national survey of physics faculty was conducted to investigate the prevalence and nature of computational instruction in physics courses across the United States. 1246 faculty from 357 unique institutions responded to the survey. The results suggest that more faculty have some form of computational teaching experience than a decade ago, but it appears that this experience does not necessarily translate to computational instruction in undergraduate students’ formal course work. Further, we find that formal programs in computational physics are absent from most departments. A majority of faculty do report using computation on homework and in projects, but few report using computation with interactive engagement methods in the classroom or on exams. Specific factors that underlie these results are the subject of future work, but we do find that there is a variation on the reported experience with computation and the highest degree that students can earn at the surveyed institutions.

Dr. Abhilash Nair Defends His PhD!

Release Date: Dec 7, 2018

Abhilash Nair successfully defended his PhD. Congratulations, Abhilash!

Kelsey wins Excellence in Teaching Award

Release Date: Nov 16, 2018

PhD student Kelsey Funkhouser has been awarded an Excellence-in-Teaching Citation from the College of Natural Science.

Abhilash and Vashti Publish Paper About Using an IOLab to Visualize Equipotential Lines

Release Date: Oct 19, 2018

Graduate student Abhilash Nair and PERL co-director Vashti Sawtelle have published an article in The Physics Teacher about Real-time Visualization of Equipotential Lines Using the IOLab.

Abstract: Drawing equipotential and electric field lines is an activity commonly found in most second-semester introductory physics courses. Unfortunately, current commercial lab offerings are expensive and do not afford the opportunity for real-time graphical visualization of the trends in voltage in different regions. In this brief article, we describe a flexible alternative that utilizes the Interactive Online Lab (IOLab) device and easy-to-acquire supplies to create an experiment that yields robust results and has resulted in a positive response from our students.

Vashti Publishes Article About an Analytic Framework to Characterize Student Reasoning

Release Date: Sep 5, 2018

PERL co-director Vashti Sawtelle, PERL alumni K.K. Mashood, and colleagues have published an article in Life Science Education titled Developing an Analytical Framework to Characterize Student Reasoning about Complex Processes.


Real-world processes are complex and require ideas from multiple disciplines to be explained. However, many science courses offer limited opportunities for students to synthesize scientific ideas into coherent explanations. In this study, we investigated how students constructed causal explanations of complex phenomena to better understand the ways they approach this practice. We interviewed 12 undergraduate science majors and asked them to explain real-world phenomena. From these interviews, we developed a characterization framework that described the reasoning patterns we found. In this framework, we identified three explanatory frames that differentiated the kinds of explanations students provided: a colloquial frame, wherein participants activated conceptual resources based on personal experience using everyday language; an emerging mechanistic frame, wherein participants used scientific concepts in semicoherent ways; and a causal mechanistic frame, wherein participants cohesively drew upon scientific conceptual resources to construct mechanistic explanations. Overall, the causal mechanistic frame was the least prevalent frame invoked by students. Instead, many drew on an emerging mechanistic frame and struggled to identify and apply scientific concepts to real-world scenarios. We advocate for incorporating opportunities to reason about real-world phenomena into undergraduate science curricula to provide students with experience integrating scientific concepts to explain real-world phenomena.

Angie publishes article in The Physics Teacher

Release Date: Aug 30, 2018

Angie Little and colleague published a paper in The Physics Teacher titled On the Importance of Engaging Students in Crafting Definitions.

Abstract: In this paper we describe an activity for engaging students in crafting definitions. We explore the strengths of this particular activity as well as the broader implications of engaging students in crafting definitions more generally.

Dr. Alanna Pawlak Defends Her PhD!

Release Date: Jul 23, 2018

Alanna Pawlak successfully defended her PhD. Congratulations, Alanna!

Katie Publishes Article on a Critical Look at Physics Identity

Release Date: Jun 1, 2018

Prof. Katie Hinko and her collaborators, Simone Hyater-Adams, Claudia Fracchiolla, Noah Finkelstein, have published an article investigating a framework for examining race and physics identity.

Abstract: Studies on physics identity are appearing more frequently and often responding to increased awareness of the underrepresentation of students of color in physics. In our broader research, we focus our efforts on understanding how racial identity and physics identity are negotiated throughout the experiences of Black physicists. In this paper, we present a Critical Physics Identity framework that can be used to examine racialized physics identity and demonstrate the utility of this framework by analyzing interviews with four physicists. Our framework draws from prior constructs of physics identity and racialized identity and provides operational definitions of six interacting dimensions. In this paper, we present the operationalized constructs, demonstrate how we use these constructs to code narrative data, as well as outline three methods of analysis that may be applied to study systems and structures and their influences on the experiences of Black students.

Vashti Publishes Article on Modeling Instruction for University Physics

Release Date: May 11, 2018

PERL co-director Vashti Sawtelle and colleagues have published an article on Modeling Instruction for University Physics in the European Journal of Physics, click here to read.

Dr. Daryl McPadden Defends Her PhD!

Release Date: Mar 21, 2018

Daryl McPadden successfully defended her PhD. Congratulations Daryl!

PERL Members Publish 10 PERC Papers

Release Date: Mar 13, 2018

We're proud to announce that the PERL Team has contributed to 10 PERC Papers in 2017. Please see below for the complete list. Read all of the papers!

The Effect of Explicit Preparation in Pedagogical Modes for Informal Physics Educators

Michael B. Bennett, Kathleen A. Hinko, Brett Fiedler, and Noah D. Finkelstein


Examining Thematic Variation in a Phenomenographical Study on Computational Physics

Nathaniel Hawkins, Michael J. Obsniuk, Paul W. Irving, and Marcos D. Caballero


Applying a Racialized Physics Identity Framework for Black Women From Different Nationalities

Simone Hyater-Adams, Tamia Williams, Claudia Fracchiolla, Noah D. Finkelstein, and Kathleen A. Hinko


Understanding the PICUP community of practice

Paul W. Irving and Marcos D. Caballero


Guided and Unguided Student Reflections

Amanda Matheson, Laura A. Wood, Elizabeth Hane, and Scott V. Franklin


Using disciplinary perspectives to refine conceptions of the “real world”

Abhilash Nair, Paul W. Irving, and Vashti Sawtelle


Understanding life science majors’ ideas about diffusion

Samuel Tunstall, Abhilash Nair, Kathleen A. Hinko, Paul W. Irving, and Vashti Sawtelle


Investigating Physics Faculty’s Reasoning about Inequities in Undergraduate Physics Education

Chandra Turpen, Angela Little, and Vashti Sawtelle


Characterizing practices and resources for inclusive physics learning

Laura A. Wood and Amy D. Robertson


Models of Math Use in Non-Academic Workplace Settings

Nicholas T. Young, Brianna Santangelo, Kelly Norris Martin, Anna E. Leak, and Benjamin M. Zwickl


Prof. Katie Hinko Wins $10,000 S3 Grant

Release Date: Feb 8, 2018

Prof. Katie Hinko is leading a team that was awarded a $10,000 Science and Society @ State grant. Working with Prof. Megan Halpern, their project titled: Hidden Value: Investigating the Physics Demonstration as Aesthetic Experience looks to explore physics demonstrations as meaningful experiences.


Physics demonstrations have a rich history both in and outside the classroom. In this project, we seek to better understand the value and meaning of these events. Evaluations of demos have traditionally focused on their ability to facilitate comprehension and retention of information; however, in this context, we seek to examine them as meaningful interactions between demonstrators and audiences. This is part of a larger project to develop an approach to science communication research that shifts the focus from knowledge transfer to experience. This “experience model” describes communication not as a transmission, but rather, as a complex interaction, steeped in cultural and personal context, made meaningful through interpretation and reflection. We focus on one-time outreach events that are based around science demonstrations, which are the most prevalent type of university-facilitated science communication programs, and are especially ubiquitous in physics outreach. In prior work, science demonstrations have been characterized as unsuccessful based on evaluation of knowledge transfer alone. Despite this, demonstrations are still used in many classrooms and throughout museums and other informal learning arenas. Excitement around demonstrations from those who conduct the demonstrations and their audiences suggests that, whether or not information is transferred or retained, there is something meaningful happening. We will observe and interview both the demonstrators and audiences of physics demonstrations to 1) ascertain what about them is meaningful 2) to articulate the idea of the demonstration as an experience, and 3) to develop a framework for creating and evaluating demonstrations using the experience model. This new view of the demonstration can help make visible the hidden dimensions of this long-standing tradition within formal and informal physics learning.

Angie publishes in Journal of Science Teacher Education

Release Date: Feb 2, 2018

Angie Little and colleagues published a paper in the Journal of Science Teacher Education titled: Building Reflective Practices in a Pre-service Math and Science Teacher Education Course That Focuses on Qualitative Video Analysis


The use of video for in-service and pre-service teacher development has been gaining acceptance, and yet video remains a challenging and understudied tool. Many projects have used video to help pre-service and in-service teachers reflect on their own teaching processes, examine teacher–student interactions, and develop their professional vision. But rarely has video been used in ways more akin to qualitative education research that is focused on student learning. Even more rarely has this focus occurred at the earliest stages of pre-service teaching when students have not yet decided to pursue teaching careers. Yet here we argue that there are benefits to our approach. We examine a course for prospective pre-service math and science teachers at the University of California, Berkeley, that engages participants in qualitative video analysis to foster their reflective practice. This course is unique in that the prospective pre-service teachers engage in qualitative video analysis at a level characteristic of professional educational research, in that their analysis focuses on student learning of math and science content. We describe classroom activities that provide opportunities for the pre-service teacher participants to better observe, notice, and interpret their students’ sociocognitive activity. The course culmination project involves participants developing and teaching lessons in a high school classroom. The participants then videotape the lessons and conduct qualitative video analysis. Results include detailed examples of two selected prospective pre-service teachers demonstrating coherent and effective approaches to conceptualizing the learning and teaching of mathematical and science content along with some potential design principles for building reflective practices through qualitative video projects.

Vashti & Danny Named 2018 Teacher-Scholars

Release Date: Jan 31, 2018

Vashti Sawtelle and Danny Caballero were both named 2018 Teacher-Scholars for their fantastic teaching and research: 


Vashti Sawtelle is a physics education scholar whose primary interest lies in supporting diverse groups of students in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, learning environments through an improved understanding of interdisciplinary learning, focused on the role active learning, modeling and interdisciplinary classrooms (e.g., physics for biologists) plays in creating supportive learning environments.

M. Danny Caballero’s research concerns how students learn to practice science, that is, how they engage in and eventually develop expertise in the practices of modern scientists and engineers. Toward this understanding, he is passionate and practical in developing innovative learning environments and then studying their effect on student learning. He is particularly well known for his research on introducing computational tools and methods into physics courses, an expertise he has leveraged and expanded into several different classroom environments. The experimental methods include introducing new paradigms for introductory physics courses, transforming introductory physics laboratories and implementing new learning environments in junior and senior level courses.

Vashti Sawtelle featured in Engaged Scholar Newsletter

Release Date: Jan 24, 2018

Prof. Vashti Sawtelle is featured in the January issue of the Engaged Scholar Newsletter. The article titled: Can Physics Educators Create a More Encouraging Environment for Black, Latino, and Native American Science Students? discusses how physics educators can help build more inclusive and supportive classrooms.

There are repercussions with the lack of diversity. It means that when minority and female students enter a high school or university physics classroom, they are most likely to encounter white, male professors, classmates, and physics professionals.

That poses a few questions. Can we level the playing field to attract, nurture, and encourage people of color? Why don't more women become scientists? What more can be done to encourage them? How should it be done?

Sawtelle studies how mentors, family dynamics, and teachers influence students as they formulate a relationship with science. In some cases, those factors contribute to the withdrawal of a science interest. Integrating ethnographic methodologies into her work provides Sawtelle with key insights into cultural experiences that impact a person's journey toward becoming a physicist.

Nick Young publishes paper on item tree analysis

Release Date: Jan 23, 2018

Graduate student Nick Young published a paper investigating students' accuracy in determining the period, frequency, and angular frequency from mathematical and graphical representations.


In the context of a generic harmonic oscillator, we investigated students’ accuracy in determining the period, frequency, and angular frequency from mathematical and graphical representations. In a series of studies including interviews, free response tests, and multiple choice tests developed in an iterative process, we assessed students in both algebra-based and calculus-based, traditionally instructed university-level introductory physics courses. Using the results, we categorized nine skills necessary for proficiency in determining period, frequency, and angular frequency. Overall results reveal that, postinstruction, proficiency is quite low: only about 20%–40% of students mastered most of the nine skills. Next, we used a semiquantitative, intuitive method to investigate the hierarchical structure of the nine skills. We also employed the more formal item tree analysis method to verify this structure and found that the skills form a multilevel, nonlinear hierarchy, with mastery of some skills being prerequisite for mastery in other skills. Finally, we implemented a targeted, 30-min group-work activity to improve proficiency in these skills and found a 1 standard deviation gain in accuracy. Overall, the results suggest that many students currently lack these essential skills, targeted practice may lead to required mastery, and that the observed hierarchical structure in the skills suggests that instruction should especially attend to the skills lower in the hierarchy.

Alanna Pawlak publishes paper on modes of collaboration

Release Date: Jan 15, 2018

Graduate student Alanna Pawlak published a paper examining how students interact in groups in the physics classroom which introduced the modes of collaboration framework.

The paper, which appears in Physical Review Physics Education Research, describes a framework which provides a method for analyzing students interactions in collaborative group work. The modes of collaboration framework defines student interactions along three dimensions: social, discursive, and disciplinary content. This multidimensional approach offers a unique lens through which to consider group work and provides a flexibility that could allow the framework to be adapted for a variety of contexts. In the paper, several applications of the framework are demonstrated and suggestions are made for its future applications.

Vashti Sawtelle & BLiSS Physics Course Featured in MSU Today

Release Date: Dec 5, 2017

PERL co-director Vashti Sawtelle and her studio course, Briggs Life Science Studio (BLiSS) Physics, is featured in MSU Today.

Read the full article: How a physics class is changing student attitudes for the better

Michigan State University professors are taking a newer way of teaching a required introductory physics course and making it more meaningful for students who often start out with an unfavorable outlook and think they’ll never use physics later on.

Studio physics does away with the traditional lecture format and focuses on developing a better understanding through interactive learning in small groups.

“Many have already taken a physics class in high school and didn’t really like it the first time around, so now they’re wondering why they have to take another class when it isn’t really relevant to what they want to do,” Sawtelle said.

“A large part of the course is actually taking content from areas of the life sciences such as biophysics or biology and relating it to the students,” Sawtelle said. “I ask them not to just do the standard box on a ramp problem, but also ask them to think about why DNA can be modeled like a spring and how that scenario relates to physics. This is a different approach and one that isn’t being done anywhere else.”

Danny receives President's Distinguished Teaching Award

Release Date: Nov 29, 2017

PERL co-director Danny Caballero wins the President's Distinguished Teaching Award. President Lou Anna K. Simon stopped by Danny's Electricity and Magnetism course (Physics 481) to personally deliver the news. Congratulations Danny!

This award is open to current MSU faculty members who have a sustained record of substantial teaching responsibilities for Michigan State University and who have implemented creative and engaging ways that foster student learning.

Only one individual may receive this award, which is intended to be a surprise to the recipient.

The award is designed to recognize faculty who:

  • Demonstrate energy and enthusiasm for engaging students in their learning.

  • Inspire students in unique ways or challenges them in innovative ways.

  • Create in their students a sense of intellectual curiosity, exciting them about learning.

  • Nurture and empower students to enact change on their own and in the lives of others.

  • Extend learning in innovative ways beyond the walls of the traditional classroom.

  • Implemented learning outcomes assessment and exhibited a commitment to the scholarship of teaching and learning.

  • Have influenced others to enhance their teaching by sharing their knowledge.

Vashti Sawtelle & Angie Little appear in The Physics Teacher

Release Date: Sep 11, 2017

PERL co-director Vashti Sawtelle and researcher Angie Little have been featured in the "Race and Physics Teaching" special collection of The Physics Teacher.

In the February 2016 issue of The Physics Teacher, we announced a call for papers1 on race and physics teaching. The response was muted at first, but has now grown to a respectable chorale-sized volume. As the manuscripts began to come in and the review process progressed, Geraldine Cochran graciously agreed to come on board as co-editor for this remarkable collection of papers, to be published throughout the fall of 2017 in TPT

Vashti Sawtelle along with colleagues Abigail Daane and Sierra Decker wrote about Teaching About Racial Equity in Introductory Physics Courses.

Angie Little along with colleagues Mel S. Sabella, Kristy L. Mardis, and Nicolette Sanders wrote about The Chi-Sci Scholars Program:Developing Community and Challenging Racially Inequitable Measures of Success at a Minority-Serving Institution on Chicago's Southside.

NSF grant awarded to Katie Hinko

Release Date: Jul 25, 2017

PERL co-director Katie Hinko has recently been awarded an NSF Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) grant to study the landscape of informal physics programming. A collaboration between Michigan State University and University of Colorado Boulder, this project is design to gather information on the informal and outreach physics education efforts across the country. The project will result in a compendium to inform future opportunities on how to educate the public through informal and outreach mechanisms.

NSF grant awarded to PERL team

Release Date: Jul 17, 2017

Physics professors Danny Caballero and Paul Irving along with Education faculty David Stroupe ana Niral Shah were awarded an NSF STEM+C grant to help high school physics teachers integrate computing into their courses and study the effects on learning, instruction, and participation.

This cross-college collaboration blends expertise to engage teachers and students in modern scientific computing work. The team will work with participating teachers and schools to run a week-long professional development workshop and year-long support program. During the school year, researchers will study how students and teachers work together to understand computing and the underlying physical and computational models.

This work was built out of a transformed introductory physics course developed by Caballero and Irving called Projects and Practices in Physics.

Danny Caballero to deliver TRUSE plenary

Release Date: Jan 25, 2017

Danny CaballeroPERL co-director Danny Caballero has been invited to deliver a plenary at the interdisciplinary Transforming Research in Undergraduate STEM Education (TRUSE) conference held in Minneapolis (July 5 - 9, 2017). His plenary will discuss the urgent need for research in computational education and make a call for DBER communities to take on this timely issue.


Paul Irving publishes paper on physics identity

Release Date: Dec 16, 2016

Assistant Professor Paul Irving published on a set of case-studies that unpack how undergraduate physics majors may develop a physics subject specific identity. 

The paper, which appears in Cultural Studies in Science Education, describes three students who offer unique perspectives on their path towards developing a physics identity. The paper illustrates that these pathways are not unidirectional and can have forward progress and regressions as students navigate these pathways. A summary of this work was also recently published in Physics Today. A branch of Prof. Irving's research uses the lenses of Identity and Communities of Practice to understand how undergraduate students persist in the physics major. This work was completed in collaboration with Prof. Eleanor Sayre at Kansas State University.

Kelsey Funkhouser defends thesis proposal

Release Date: Dec 15, 2016

Fourth year astrophysics graduate student Kelsey Funkhouser has successfully defended her thesis proposal.

Kelsey is completing her first full year as a PERL graduate student after switching from astrophysics research last year. Her research will look into how students develop their physics identity in laboratory courses, which emphasize science practices. Kelsey's research will blend the theoretical lenses of identity and communities of practice and will make use of quantitative analysis as she works to develop a valid and reliable survey for this purpose. Kelsey is co-advised by Profs. Vashti Sawtelle and Danny Caballero. Her thesis committee also includes Profs. Ed Brown, Angela Calabrese-Barton, Megan Donahue, and Phil Duxbury.

PERL graduate student Abhilash Nair awarded S3 grant

Release Date: Dec 10, 2016

Abhilash Nair Abhilash Nair, a second year physics PhD student, was awarded a $10,000 Science + Society @ State (S3) grant for his project, "Vital Signs: Bridging & Democratizing Physics." 

His project involves studying student usage of the IOLab, which is an inexpensive device that has 11 built-in sensors that can measure such phenomena as body movement, sound, and temperature. Mr. Nair and his collaborators, Profs. Vashti Sawtelle and Issac Record, will develop robust add-on devices that allow the IOLab to record electrocardiograms (ECG) and conduct pulmonary function tests (lung capacity and flow rate). The project aims to address several vital philosophical, ethical, and social concerns about using technology to collect data on the human body. These concerns invite students to deepen their understanding of the relationship between science and culture. Mr. Nair is the first graduate student team leader to be awarded an S3 grant.   

Prof. Danny Caballero & team in Norway to develop Center for Computing in Science Education

Release Date: Dec 10, 2016

Prof. Danny CaballeroPERL Co-Director Danny Caballero has partnered with a team led by Anders Malthe-Sørenssen, professor of physics at the University of Oslo, Norway to develop the Center for Computing in Science Education (CCSE), which is one of 4 projects recently awarded the prestigious status of Center for Excellence in Education in Norway

The center aims to become an international hub for the research-based integration of computational methods in science education. In partnership with students, the center plans to integrate computation throughout the whole curriculum, develop materials using research-based practices, help spread the integration of computation in science education to the broader community.

The team represents a large international collaboration that includes MSU's Prof. Morten Hjorth-Jensen and faculty from the University of Oslo including Ellen Karoline Henriksen (Physics), Cathrine Wahlstrøm Tellefsen (Physics), and Knut Mørken (Mathematics). Partner institutions include the University College of Southeastern Norway, Valler High School, and Michigan State University!

Prof. Vashti Sawtelle to deliver plenary at FFPER 2017

Release Date: Dec 9, 2016

Prof. Vashti SawtellePERL co-director Vashti Sawtelle has been invited to deliver a plenary at the biennial Foundation and Frontiers of Physics Education Research Conferenceheld in Bar Harbor, ME (June 19-23, 2017). Her plenary will discuss the intersection of interdisciplinarity and equity -- two essential and overlapping areas of study for physics education.

Prof. Sawtelle is leading several research projects at Michigan State that investigate interdisciplinary thinking, equity, and how these ideas necessarily intersect in physics classrooms.