Award-Dr. Roxanne Springer
ďOh, youíre taking Physics 53? Iím sorry.Ē Itís an often-heard statement around campus. Itís a statement Iíve heard many times in my years here. But that might be changing. The Introductory Physics series has had a reputation for being difficult and not being very relevant to a studentís everyday experience. However, the Physics Department is investigating ways to improve these courses by strengthening the laboratories that accompany them. Under the guidance of Director of Undergraduate Studies and Professor Daniel Gauthier, the Department is now making important changes in the laboratory component of the introductory courses through the work of Senior Lecturing Fellow Mark Johnson and Lecturing Fellow Jeffrey Tull. It is the hope of Gauthier, Johnson and Tull that these newly restructured labs, working jointly with the excellent lecturing the students already receive from the faculty, will help to better reinforce the fundamental concepts of phsyics.
Johnson and Tull, utilizing material and methods developed by the Physics Education Research (PER) community, have begun to improve the studentsí learning experience through major changes in the introductory laboratories. This includes renovations to the Physics 41/42 (introductory physics for majors) laboratory, completed this fall, proposed renovations to the Physics 51/53 (Mechanics) and Physics 52/54 (Electricity and Magnetism) laboratories and new experiments and tutorials already being used this fall.
The changes in the structure of the laboratory environment are those developed by members of the PER community and are based on many studies that show that when taught using these methods, students in general learn physics better. There are about a dozen such programs around the nation. Many are completely run by their respective Physics Departments, giving them incredible opportunities for hands-on research into new methods of instruction.
PER research has shown that there are two main problems with the state of physics education around the world and at Duke University. First, the students are not learning as much as was assumed. Somewhere between the lectures, recitations, homework and labs the students are failing to grasp some of the most fundamental concepts. Second, the students are not enjoying the experience of learning physics. What is most threatening about this second failing is that it continually reinforces the first one. A student who does not enjoy her coursework will not learn well.
The PER answer to these problems is to change the whole structure of the learning experience. The new curricula are based on research results regarding the effectiveness of various general learning methods and also on methods which apply specifically to learning physics. The labs are now oriented toward group learning in conjunction with Socratic instruction. Students work in groups where they work material designed very precisely to make the most of the studentsí time and challenge their misconceptions. The material is highly structured and built around a learning model of elicit/confront/resolve.
The elicit/confront/resolve approach is one that has been shown by PER groups to be a very effective way for learning physics. First, the material elicits a response from the student, forcing him to commit to an answer. Then the curriculum confronts the student with a situation that challenges the studentís answer, either in the form of a new question or an experiment the student performs himself. Confronted by this dissonance, the student is now motivated to resolve the issue. In doing so, the student should come to a realization and a new understanding about the concept being addressed.
Another important part of these instruction methods is the instructors themselves. The highly-structured material requires an instructor who is capable of using Socratic dialogue, where questions arenít answered, but responded to with further questions and advice such that the student is guided to resolve the question herself. The Physics Department has instituted a TA training program where the laboratory instructors are taught this and similar methods of instruction such that both the instructor and materials engage the student in the work.
The Department has started using these new teaching methods in all three of the Introductory Physics tracks. They have also completely renovated the Physics 41/42 laboratory room to provide a better environment for this type of education. The educational environment is centered on group interaction, with new tables, specially designed to facilitate group learning and for use with microcomputers. The classrooms are meant to be flexible enough to be used for labs, recitations, or even for computer labs. It is hoped that similar renovations can be made to the Physics 51/53 and 52/54 laboratories.
With the renewed energies the Physics Department faculty are focusing on the undergraduate curriculum there will be some marked improvements in studentís education. Many more students, whether they are physics majors, engineers or pre-meds, will come out of their introductory physics program with a better understanding of the fundamental concepts that are the foundation of physics. And they will learn these concepts in environments where they can enjoy the learning process. Perhaps we will all soon be hearing around campus, ďIím taking Physics 53. I understand it and Iím really enjoying the class.Ē
David Ahern is a Trinity senior majoring in Physics. He has been working this semester as an instructor for the Physics 51/53 labs and has seen hands-on how well the students are learning and how much they are enjoying the experience.
Last modified: 5-Feb-99