Student Understanding of Electric and Magnetic Fields in Materials

By Savannah L. Mitchem

Supervisor: Dr. Eleanor C. Sayre


Kansas State University Physics Department  REU Program

This work is partially funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) through NSF grant number PHYS-1461251.  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 NSF or AFOSR. 



Project Overview: 

This summer, I researched how upper division E&M students use conceptual resources to understand how dielectric materials behave in electric and magnetic fields. I analyzed data in the form of student test responses by observing relationships between which resources students used and the degree to which they could answer conceptual questions correctly. I also analyzed how these resource clusters changed with time and context, specifically before and after targeted instruction of the material.

Summary of Findings: 

A full description of the research I participated in this summer is in the form of the paper my group and I submitted to the American Journal of Physics. The full paper can be downloaded at this address:

Here is an excerpt from the Summary and Conclusion section of the paper:

We found evidence to support that thinking of polarization inside the atom seems to increase understanding and can give students better intuition about special cases such as dielectric breakdown without hurting their understanding of magnetization. These implications for instruction can also apply to lower and higher level courses than upper division E&M, and conceptual understanding of physical phenomena on a microscopic scale could be a helpful supplement to math based curricula as well. In conclusion, the goals of this study were to identify the clusters of resources that successful students activated while answering an upper-level conceptual problem in E&M, and to highlight the role of the instructor to facilitate activation of those resources. We know that active learning environments paired with conceptual curricula improve student understanding of physics, but improved instructional methods are still needed to support students’ reasoning in these areas, especially for upper division courses. Finally, our work highlights the need for future research on students’ use of resources to solve problems in these upper division physics courses.

About Me:  I am a physics major at Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL. My research interest is primarily in Physics Education, and I am highly considering becoming a physics educator at the high school or university level.

The REU program at Kansas State University has been an incredibly rewarding experience, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in research and wants to be immersed in it for a summer. I was able to submit my first research paper to a journal, and I got a more complete idea about what the graduate school experience might entail. Not only was it a worthwhile experience professionally, but I also met countless awesome people who are excited about physics and research. The program is very well organized, and the faculty are dedicated to making the summer a great one academically and socially. Finally, Manhattan, KS, or “The Little Apple” as they call it, is an enjoyable place to spend a summer. We never ran out of things to do, and the surrounding area is rich with culture and beauty. If you are applying to this program, specifically the Physics Education Research REU, you will not regret it.

Useful Links:


I would like to thank Dina Zohrabi Alaee for her constant support and significant contribution to this research. Dina made this summer as great as it was. I would also like to thank Dr. Sayre for her support and patience as I learned the ropes of the research and publication processes. Finally, I would like to thank the rest of the KSU Department of Physics for going above and beyond to make this such a solid program.