Uncovering Cognitive Processes in Physics Problem Solving by Tracking the Eyes

REU student: Elizabeth Noël Olson

supervisor:  Dr. N. Sanjay Rebello


Kansas State University Kansas State Physics Kansas State REU Program

Union University Union University Physics

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This program is funded by the National Science Foundation through grant number PHY-1157044.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


Welcome!  My name is Betsy Olson, and I am an undergraduate student at Union University in Jackson, TN (see About Me).  During the summer of 2012, I spent ten weeks at Kansas State University participating in the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program through their Department of Physics.  Read on to learn what I researched, the research status at the end of the program, and what’s ahead for this project.  Also see my final presentation and learn more about the activities that were a part of the K-State REU program: Lectures, Electronics Class, Ethics Class, and other activities.


Project Overview:

I worked in the Physics Education Research Group (K-SUPER) under Dr. N. Sanjay Rebello, collaborating with Dr. Bashirah Ibrahim (postdoctoral fellow), Adrian Madsen (PhD candidate), and Amy Rouinfar (graduate student).  Our project brought together several areas of physics education research (PER): problem solving, external representation, and internal representation (see Final Presentation for more information).  We tracked students’ eyes while they solved kinematics problems, hoping to connect their eye movements to their solution methods.  In the future, this study could be used as a springboard for more exploration into kinematics problem solving and how to better use graphs in kinematics.

Research Status:  During the summer: two slightly different research protocols were tested, the research plan was modified until a final version was agreed upon, and eye tracking data was collected for 25 participants.  By the end of the ten weeks, data had just begun to be analyzed using a C++ program created by Amy Rouinfar.

What’s Ahead:  After the REU program ends on August 3rd, preliminary data analysis will be completed by August 15th, the deadline for a paper proposal for the National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST) 2013 Annual International Conference.  Over the next several months, full data analysis will be completed and the final NARST conference paper will be written.

Final Presentation:  Take a look at my presentation in PowerPoint format or PDF format.


Lectures: Fifteen lectures took place over the course of the summer.  Dr. Larry Weaver gave lectures on topics such as cross section, history of modern physics, index of refraction, and antiparticles.  Dr. Eleanor Sayre gave a lecture on Physics Education Research.  Dr. Glenn Horton-Smith gave lectures on neutrino oscillations and nuclear energy.  Dr. Tim Bolton lectured about the Higgs boson.  Dr. Chris Sorenson gave a lecture on nanoparticles.  Dr. Carlos Trallero led a discussion on the graduate school application process.  Dr. Bharat Ratra gave a lecture on dark energy.

Electronics Class:  Dr. Brian Washburn taught a 3-week-long electronics class.  Topics covered were: voltage dividers, passive RC filters, and operational amplifiers.

Ethics Class:  Dr. Amy Lara and Dr. Bruce Glymour met with the REU students for eight weeks to discuss ethics.  We discussed mentoring, fraud, and public communication, among other topics.

Other Activities:  Highlights of the REU program were: picnic at Dean Shanklin’s house, day trip to Hutchinson, KS, to see the Underground Salt Museum and Cosmosphere, and Konza prairie tour.


About Elizabeth:  Has attended Union University since fall 2009.  Set to graduate in May 2014 as a Physics Education major, math minor.  Recipient of the Kyle L. Hathcox Memorial Physics Award in spring 2012.  ’12-’13 Society of Physics Students president.  Union University Symphonic Band French horn player.  Hobbies: reading, piano playing, origami folding, crocheting, music listening.  Lord of the Rings ambition: to live in Rivendell.


Useful Links: 

American Institute of Physics