PERActivities of the Physics Education Research Group

The work done by the PER group here at K-State has earned us a few recognitions this year.  Sanjay Rebello was awarded a Distinguished Service Citation from the AAPT at the summer meeting in Portland.  In addition, a project led by former graduate student Dyan McBride along with some assistance from Sytil Murphy and myself, earned us the top prize at the AAPT Apparatus Competition this year as described in a separate article in this newsletter.

We also had 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 at AAPT, International Conference on the Learning Sciences, the Transforming Research in Undergraduate STEM Education and the Transforming Research in Undergraduate STEM Education Conference as well as the Gordon Conference.

We have had a few new additions to our group this year.  Joshua Von Korff and Bashirah Ibrahim joined us as postdocs last fall.  Josh completed his Ph.D. in Physics at University of California-Berkeley.  Bashirah completed her PhD in Physics Education at University of Cape Town prior to coming to K-State.  Josh and Bashirah have quickly become involved in several projects of the group over the past few months and have proven invaluable to the group.  In addition, we have several undergraduate students working on various projects to include physics majors Matthew Rothfuss and Brandon Sargent as well as Joshua Gross who recently graduated in Math.

Ebone Pierce (Dillard University) and Tanner Stevens (University of Minnesota) worked with our group as part of REU program at K-State last summer.  Tanner will be presenting the results his work at the National Association for Research in Science Teaching Conference in Orlando this spring.  Former REU student, Amy Rouinfar, has joined the group as a graduate student.  Although she is working as a TA for the department, Amy is immersing herself in research as well.

Jackie Chini finished her PhD during 2010.  Jackie accepted a visiting faculty appointment at University of Central Florida in Orlando.  Liz Gire, former post-doc, completed her work and began a tenure-track appointment at University of Memphis.

Some of the ongoing projects we would like to update you on are described below as well

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 and Dehui Hu, post-docs Josh Von Korff and Bashirah Ibrahim, Professor Dean Zollman, and PI Associate Professor N. Sanjay Rebello

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 were conducted in 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 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 began 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 former graduates student Jacquelyn Chini and current graduate student Adrian Carmichael, post-docs 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, 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