Activities of the Physics Education Research Group
Sanjay Rebello & Dean Zollman

PER Student ResearchThe Physics Education Research Group completed yet another productive year.  In addition to the ongoing projects, our group recently secured funding for three more projects. 

Our ongoing projects include collaborations with research groups at Carnegie Mellon, Alabama, Missouri, San Diego State and Wisconsin.  Our research focused on the themes of transfer of learning and the use of technology in teaching and learning. 

In the past year, the Physics Pathway project, in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon pursued two different research and development efforts.  Both are based on sophisticated video database and natural language technologies which were development at Carnegie Mellon.  The original Pathway ( provides teachers with just-in-time help on the pedagogy of physics.  It now can answer over 7500 questions asked by physics teachers.  

This same technology is being used in a research effort to understand how various components of modern technology can be used to provide a tutoring environment for students.  The first steps in this effort are to develop and test instructional materials for online use by high school students.  These materials use research based pedagogy to integrate text and video of experiments with the video database and search engine.  Ph.D. student Christopher Nakamura developed and pilot tested these materials with students in high schools and will be doing more testing in preparation for the research part of the project.. 

The Modern Miracle Medical Machines project completed its final year of research, materials development and testing.  The focus of the final phase of the project was investigating student understanding of the physics which is the basis of wavefront abberometry – a relatively new diagnostic technique for the human eye.  In addition to investigating how students transfer their learning from a standard learning of optics to wavefront abberometry, Ph. D. student Dyan McBride completed research that led to a new technique of characterizing student understanding that has the potential to be applied in other projects. Dyan also developed and tested instructional materials with introductory college students.  Dyan will be completing her Ph.D. research this year before she moves on to a faculty position in Pennsylvania.  Post-doc Sytil Murphy is also involved in this effort and will complete a research-based learning unit on Magnet Resonance Imaging this summer. 

NSEUS groupOur collaboration with the faculty at University of Alabama and San Diego State involves work on effects on student learning and classroom practice of different approaches to teaching University-level science courses taken by future elementary teachers.  Toward this goal Ph.D. student Mojgan Matloob and post-doc Sytil Murphy collected data from several schools.  They are in the process of developing a rubric for characterizing student understanding as gleaned from their responses to written questions.  They will be further developing this scheme and analyzing data from more schools in the years to come. 

Over the past couple of years our group has made forays into the important area of problem solving.  In collaboration with researchers at University of Missouri, we developed and pilot-tested strategies to enable students in introductory physics to become expert-like problem solvers.  Ph.D. student Fran Mateycik has completed significant research in this area.  Last year, she developed a protocol for group problem solving sessions that can help students develop better problem solving skills.  She compared the performance of students who participated in these sessions with the rest of the class and obtained some interesting and promising results.  She will be completing her Ph.D. this coming year before she moves on to greener pastures. 

Although the focus of our group has been primarily on post-secondary and high school education, recently we have been collaborating with the faculty at University of Wisconsin to develop and test materials that will be used with middle school students.  The CoMPASS project creates a design-based learning experience that integrates hands-on materials, hypertext and more recently computer simulations to enable students to learn physics concepts.  Ph.D. student Jackie Chini has been working to adapt the materials to instruction for undergraduate students.  She has been investigating how students apply their physics as well as their everyday knowledge to the design tasks.  Jackie has also been investigating the extent to which each of the various elements of the curriculum has a role in student learning. 

In addition to the ongoing projects described above, our group recently secured funding to work on three new projects.  The first project builds on the ongoing work on problem solving.  The new project investigates students’ trajectories of learning how to solve problems as they proceed from mathematics to physics to engineering.  The second project builds on the work done on the CoMPASS project by focusing more specifically on the use of multiple representations and its impact on student learning.  Finally, yet another project is targeted at learning in the upper-division – particularly in the ‘Physical Measurement and Instrumentation’ and ‘Advanced Lab’ courses.  These projects will certainly be keeping us busy for a long time to come. 

The work done by our group earned us several peer-reviewed publications at conferences and journals this past year including the Physics Education Research Conference,  National Association of Research in Science Teaching as well as a host of contributed talks at the national meetings of the American Association of Physics Teachers along with a few invited talks. 

We have had a few new additions to our group this year.  Sytil Murphy and Ashok Mody joined us as post-docs this fall.  Sytil completed her Ph.D. in Physics with a specialization in Experimental Optics from Montana State University.  Ashok completed his Ph.D. in Physics with a specialization in Theoretical Physics from the University of Bombay.  Both Sytil and Ashok have become involved in several projects of the group over the past several months. 

Spartak Kalita finished his PhD in December and has joined the faculty at Moscow State University on the Black Sea.  Todd Leif, Professor of Physics at Cloud County Community College, completed his PhD in November.  Brian Adrian, former post-doc, completed work on the Pathway project and has relocated to San Diego.

Overall, it has been a promising year in terms of our research and new funding.  We hope to explore new ideas and expand the horizons of Physics Education in the year ahead.

If you would like any additional information about any of our research, please go to our website at or send email to