Activities of the Physics Education Research Group

Dean Zollman


The work done by the PER group here at K-State has earned us several peer-reviewed publications at conferences and journals this past year including the Physics Education Research Conference,  American Educational Research Association, 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. 

In addition, we have had a few new additions to our group this year.  Elizabeth Gire joined us as a post-doc last fall.  Liz  completed her Ph.D. in Physics Education at San Diego State University and prior to coming to K-State she worked as a postdoc at Oregon State University with Dr. Corinne Manogue.  Liz has quickly become involved in several projects of the group over the past several months and has proven invaluable to the group.  In addition, we have several undergraduate students working on various projects to include first year physics majors Amelia Fortmayer, Brandon Sargent and Adam Summers as well as  Joshua Gross (junior in Math), Chad Nutsch, Jenn Pratt (who completed her B.S. in Physics in December '09).

Fran Mateycik and Dyan McBride finished their PhDs during 2009.  Dyan has joined the faculty at Mercyhurst Colllege in Pennsylvania and Fran accepted a one-year faculty appointment at Penn State Altoona.  Ashok Mody, former post-doc, completed work and has returned to India.


A major accomplishment of the PER Group was the hosting of the Arkansas-Oklahoma-Kansas (A-O-K) section meeting of the AAPT this past October.  As A-O-K section president, postdoc Sytil Murphy took on the daunting task of organizing this meeting which was well attended by faculty from Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas in addition to high school teachers from the High Energy Physics Group's Quarknet project.  The guest speaker for the event was Professor Corinne Manogue of Oregon State University.  Friday's festivities began with lab tours hosted by Soft Matter group faculty Chris Sorensen and Robert Szoszkiewicz as well as the JRM Lab.  A banquet was held in the K-State Union during which Kansas high school teacher and Quarknet member, Penny Blue, was presented with the A-O-K High School Physics Teacher of the year award for the state of Kansas.  Following the presentation of Penny's award, Dr. Manogue gave a talk on "The Magic of Teaching."  On Saturday the meeting began with workshops offered on Physics Pathway (Chris Nakamura & Dean Zollman, K-State), Scientific Methods (Charles Mamolo, Manhattan High School) and Web Resources & Building Courses with (Bruce Mason, Univ. of Oklahoma).  This was followed by the contributed talks that were presented as well as a poster session.  In addition, Dr. Manogue spoke once again at the luncheon on "Bridging the Gap Between Mathematics & Physics.   At the end of the afternoon sessions, a drawing was held for gifts donated by Pasco Scientific, Vernier Software and Ztek.

Some of the ongoing projects we would like to update you on are described below as well as in two separate articles featuring activities of Dean Zollman (Physics Pathway and Physware) that are included elsewhere in this newsletter.  

Investigating Trajectories of Learning & Transfer of Problem-Solving Expertise from Mathematics to Physics to Engineering

This project is a collaborative effort to investigate the development of students’ problem-solving skills across math, physics and electrical engineering courses in an undergraduate program of study. In the physics department, researchers on the project include graduate student Dong-Hai Nguyen, post-doc Elizabeth Gire, Associate Professor N. Sanjay Rebello and PI Professor Dean Zollman.  

Undergraduate science and engineering curricula are generally structured so that students can develop more sophisticated problem-solving skills. Introductory courses include relatively simple and structured problems while problems in upper-division courses progress to be more complex and unstructured. This process of development and change in the level of problem solving-expertise over the duration of a scientist’s or engineer’s undergraduate experience has not been carefully studied. Furthermore, research has not yet investigated how problem-solving skills transfer through a series of STEM courses to provide a set of coherent experiences that helps develop the students’ overall problem-solving expertise.  Thus, we do not yet know what can be done to optimize the learning trajectory toward problem-solving expertise by preparing research-based coherent experiences across several courses. 

Our project is a step in creating a knowledge base on the evolution of students’ problem solving skills over the span of three years of STEM courses.  We use individual semi-structured interviews to capture fine grained data about individual student’s problem-solving abilities.  Based on these insights we plan to enhance an adaptive online system to collect data from large numbers of students and map students’ learning trajectories as they build toward problem-solving expertise.  In each phase, we conduct longitudinal as well as cross-sectional studies in multiple courses in mathematics, physics and engineering.  Over three years we will investigate problem solving by over 3000 students in seven different courses in mathematics, physics and engineering. 

Since funding began in Spring 2009, we have conducted 140 interviews tracking a cohort of students through a full year of introductory physics instruction. These interviews have focused on how students use multiple representations (functions, graphs and pictures) and other math skills to solve standard textbook problems. This cohort will continue to be tracked in junior-level electrical engineering courses. Focus group interviews of a new cohort of introductory physics students are planned for Spring 2010 as an intermediate step to developing an online system of research-based problems and hints. 

Capstone Projects in Physical Measurement and Instrumentation (PMI)

This project is a case study of implementing capstone projects in a senior-level electronics course to give students experience solving open-ended, semi-structured problems.  Researchers on this project include graduate student Nasser Juma, post-doc Elizabeth Gire and Associate Professors N. Sanjay Rebello, Kristan Corwin and Assistant Professor Brian Washburn.

Some physics departments offer courses to senior physics majors that emphasize the synthesis of physics topics from previous courses and include projects that last several weeks or months.  At K-State, the advanced electronics course Physical Measurement and Instrumentation (PMI) concludes with capstone projects aimed at helping students synthesize their newly acquired knowledge of digital and analog electronics with topics and techniques in the prerequisite courses Modern Physics Lab and Advance Physics Lab.  These capstone projects are design tasks in which students develop ways to automate data collection from previously completed lab activities using LabVIEW™ and NI ELVIS (Educational Laboratory Virtual Instrument Suite).

There is some evidence, though mostly anecdotal, that experiences like these capstone projects help students develop problem-solving skills relevant for more open-ended “real world” problems (rather than highly structured textbook problems).  Our research will focus on characterizing the skills and knowledge that students use and develop while working on their capstone projects and the dynamics of groups as projects develop.  Data collection for this research will begin in the Spring 2010 semester.

Investigating How Students Learn with Physical and Virtual Manipulatives

For several years, the K-State Physics Education Research Group has been investigating how students learn in a lab setting using different types of manipulatives:  real lab equipment (physical) and computer simulations of experiments (virtual). K-State researchers on this project include graduates students Jacquelyn Chini and Adrian Carmichael, post-doc Elizabeth Gire and Associate Professor N. Sanjay Rebello.  This project is part of a collaboration with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin.

With computers becoming more ubiquitous in our daily lives and in our classrooms, how students interact and learn with physical experiments and computer simulations are central questions in science education. Our research looks at how students use these different types of manipulatives to learn about simple machines, particularly pulleys and inclined planes. We use a novel experimental design of pre-, mid- and post-testing to probe the affordances of each type of manipulative and sequencing effects. We find that there are advantages for each type of manipulative, and that virtual and physical manipulatives help students develop correct understandings of different concepts.  We also find that the order the manipulatives are used affect student learning, with students who used real pulleys before the simulation achieving higher scores on questions having to do with effort force, the distance the rope is pulled, and mechanical advantage.  We will continue to collect data in order to more fully understand why different concepts are learned differently with different types of manipulatives.

Using Eye-Tracking Technology to Investigate Expert-Novice Differences in Using Pictures and Graphs to Solve Physics Problems

The technology of tracking eye movements has led to new understandings in how people process visual information for thinking.  Recently, some studies have used eye tracking to understand how people solve problems.  Furthermore, recent studies in psychology have demonstrated that manipulating a person’s eye movements can affect the mental models used for problem-solving.  We aim to look at expert-novice differences in using pictures, diagrams and graphs for solving physics problems and how inexperienced students can be trained to use these representations more effectively.  Researchers on this project include graduate student Adrian Carmichael, post-doc Elizabeth Gire, and Associate Professor N. Sanjay Rebello and Assistant Professor Lester Loschky (K-State Department of Psychology).

Overall, it has been a promising year in terms of our research.  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