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Transforming Physics Education

Mats Selen

Transforming Physics Education

Professor Mats Selen, a Cottrell Scholar since 1996, and his colleagues in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign physics department, have made dramatic improvements to their introductory courses. For their efforts Selen and his colleagues, Gary Gladding and Timothy Stelzer, received the Excellence in Physics Education Award at the American Physical Society’s 2013 national meeting. The award cites the trio’s creation of “smartPhysics,” an innovative approach to teaching that does away with the traditional textbook. The smartPhysics approach requires students to view a series of brief, computer-animated and narrated “pre-lecture” segments illuminating basic concepts to be covered in upcoming classroom sessions. In addition, wording from student answers to online quizzes are frequently incorporated into the lectures, building student involvement in the course. This “Just-in -Time Teaching” feedback reveals gaps in student understanding that can be covered in the lectures. Students don’t read the book “We’ve known for a long time that students don’t read the book,” Selen said. “Which is a pity for a variety of reasons; but the main problem is they’re sitting in front of me during the lecture and I have to start from scratch when explaining the material.” Selen teaches Physics 211, a calculus-based introductory mechanics course for physics majors and engineers that averages roughly 1,000 students each semester. He said the 15-20 minutes it takes the average student to view and participate in each smartPhysics pre-lecture module means that no longer must he lecture in the traditional manner. “Instead, after some discussion I’ll re-visit the questions that they did poorly on,” Selen said. “And I’ll ask a whole bunch of other clicker questions, all of them designed to root out misconceptions.” (Students respond in class using “i>clicker,” a classroom polling system also developed by Selen and his colleagues.) Selen said he includes five to 10 clicker questions in a 50-minute lecture, so that the focus of the session is on the students interacting with him and with each other, rather than sitting passively and merely listening. As a result of the smartPhysics methodology, Selen said Physics 211 covers more concepts than traditional courses; meanwhile, the fraction of students who find the lectures useful, with the same people teaching, has gone from 40 percent to 80 percent. “That’s easy to understand,” he said. “If you come into class having thought about this stuff a little bit, then of course you’re going to think the lecture is more useful. While you still may be confused about certain concepts, at least you know what you’re confused about. And then when we discuss them, you’re motivated to figure out why you’re confused, because you know this stuff is going to be on the test in a week.” ‘Institutionalized’ courses Selen noted the smartPhysics approach would not have been possible without a fundamental change that occurred within the Illinois physics department roughly 15 years ago. ”Gary Gladding was the guy who did this,” he said. “As associate head for our undergraduate program, he basically institutionalized the introductory courses.” Gladding’s institutional approach means that when a professor is assigned to teach an intro course, almost everything has been prepared in advance. “It’s basically handed to you, and you’re told, ‘Here, this is what you’ve got to do.’ ” As a result, Selen said, what was once a “horrible” teaching assignment became a pleasant task, or at least “one that wasn’t going to kill you.” And that motivated good people to want to teach these courses, he said, adding that somewhat counter-intuitively, the highly structured courses, with their set requirements and pre-laid infrastructure, ultimately gave creative teachers the time to experiment and try new things. “It is a lot different from the past, when you would walk into one of these courses and you would have to invent it from nothing. Everything we’re doing now grew out of that change,” Selen said. Many other major research universities have yet to attempt the institutionalized approach, he observed. “People look at us and they wonder, ‘How the hell did you manage that?’ It’s a real paradigm shift. Instead of it being ‘my’ course, now it’s ‘our’ course. And the problem, as always, is getting faculty buy-in.” Now, of course, it’s simply the way they do things at Illinois, “and everybody’s bought into it,” Selen said. “Roughly 60 Illinois faculty have taught these courses now, and there are very few people who say, ‘There’s no damn way; I won’t do it.’ There’s probably one or two. But just about everybody thinks it’s good.” While all of Illinois’ intro physics courses have been “institutionalized,” only the two semester calculus based intro physics sequence, has been given the smartPhysics upgrade so far. “It’s not clear how far we’ll go,” Selen said. But he added that he’s excited about taking the online methodology to the department’s algebra-based physics course. It’s designed for pre-med students and others who aren’t going to be physicists or engineers. “It would benefit them greatly, so we’re working on making a version that isn’t as heavily calculus-based, that can reach a broader audience. “ He added that it probably won’t be ready for several years. A hand-held physics lab In the meantime, Selen has created an electronic/mechanical learning tool, basically a wireless hand-held physics lab, to be beta tested during the upcoming school year. Depending on the results of that testing, the device, meant to be mass produced for use by individual students, may eventually be incorporated into the smartPhysics methodology. Armed initially with a $49 Texas Instruments electronics development kit, he developed the device which allows students to perform a variety of software-guided experiments, and to save their results on their computers. He sold the rights to a company that is making the next stage of investment in the project, and which will produce 3,000 of the devices for the fall 2013 semester. Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation is funding Selen’s study to determine the most effective way to use this novel instructional tool. When he’s not busy revolutionizing undergraduate physics instruction, Selen assumes his alter ego, “the Whys Guy,” to preach the physics gospel once a week on a morning TV news show in Champaign. “I don’t fool myself into thinking maybe somebody’s going to learn that much from a 10-minute science segment at 7 a.m.,” he said. “But on the other hand, it’s a good thing to do, because if people see somebody on TV having fun with science, then maybe they think it’s not so bad.” As far as finding the ideal method to teach physics to undergraduates, Selen observed that every teacher approaches the task differently. But in general, he said, the pursuit of best practices, a willingness to take advantage of the tools that advancing technology offers, and a respect and love for students are factors that enable one to live up to his or her full potential as an educator. Science and inspiration Mats Selen, a fellow of the American Physical Society, has been recognized for his hardware contributions to CLEO, a general-purpose particle detector at the Cornell Electron Storage Ring (CESR), and his work to advance the understanding of charm hadronic decays and excited states. A few years ago he turned his research focus toward astrophysics, joining the Dark Energy Survey collaboration and working on problems in the field of supernova physics. Most recently, his focus has turned to the field of Physics Education Research. While he is first and foremost a research scientist, his passion for teaching has been a key part of his professional career during his 20 years at the University of Illinois. “The reason I got into education so deeply back in the mid ’90s was because of encouragement by my department, but also because of Research Corporation,” he said. “Both entities helped me to realize it was an OK thing to be doing; that you’re not being a screwball by focusing on helping students perhaps a little bit more than maybe you should at the expense of research. What you’re doing as a teacher is a really a good thing.” He added that the Cottrell Scholar program, with its emphasis on improving the quality of undergraduate teaching at research universities, has been an invaluable resource for him. “Every single person I’ve met through the program is inspiring in some way. How can you hang out with that group of dedicated people and not feel inspired? It’s been one of the greatest things that ever happened to me in my career. Probably the greatest thing, actually. No question.”

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