PER: Stepping back and looking back

posted by Bob Beichner, North Carolina State University on

As many of you know, I’ve experienced a relatively recent but substantial shift in my career orientation. (I’ve become a hospital chaplain. Interesting and fulfilling work, but that’s for a different blog or even a face-to-face conversation.) Anyway, the process of becoming a chaplain involves lots of introspection. I’ve had the opportunity to look back on where I’ve been and how I have invested my time. Much of my professional effort for the past three decades has been toward advancing the field of Physics Education Research. Given that this coming PERC will be the last one I will be attending, it seems fitting to take advantage of this, the conference’s great blogging space, to reflect on the field. It’s convenient that the theme of the PERC, without too much nudging, is along those same lines.

People: The main ingredient

One of the most enjoyable, important, and unique features of PER is the welcoming nature of those who participate. I take pride in the fact that green graduate students and old geezers like myself can sit down at a table and swap stories, ask each other questions, and just generally be good neighbors in the field. I’m happy there isn’t a lot of looking down on people who ask “dumb questions” since those of us with experience recognize that carefully listening to questions provides a huge opportunity for everyone to gain insight. Of course, you can discern some of what people don’t understand (which helps you remember what it was like to first figure it out yourself) but perhaps just as important, you find out what people think is significant enough to ask about.

Where we’ve been

I’ve been around long enough to remember when the questions being asked were not only, “What do students think about topic ?” but also, “What should graduate students study as they become Physics Education Researchers?” That, in fact, was the main topic of the first US PER conference, held in Raleigh during the fall of 1994. That meeting wouldn’t qualify as a PERC since there wasn’t any direct discussion of research examining student understanding. Instead we were trying to decide what components should be in a PER graduate program. Not everyone came to the same conclusions, but we all knew what we were doing was important enough that we should be thinking hard about it. It was definitely worth arguing for your own particular perspective as well as listening carefully to the ideas of others.

From those beginnings, new (or recently new) PER groups along with a few brave solo researchers could more confidently approach fundamental questions of, “How do we find out what students think about topic ?” Then, just as our pathway to publication opened up—thanks to the APS—an explosion of studies on student understanding and cognition brought scores of interesting and insightful papers. Sure, we tested new instructional approaches we thought (i.e., guessed) would work. But we also began to develop, incorporate and appreciate theories of learning. Some started using those theories to guide the development of instructional materials rather than the other way around. We began putting our quantitative and qualitative methodologies under closer scrutiny, applying our mathematical acumen to improve research techniques, creating better mechanisms for analysis, and even starting to recognize limitations in what we can conclude.

In short, we were doing real science. Even physics departments began to accept PER. (Those of us who have been around a while recognize what a huge achievement that was. It was well worth all the years of hard work it required. We are still not where we’d like to be, but most departments will, at the very least, apply aspects of PER-based instruction to some of their classes. If nothing else, PER-influenced textbooks are in use around the world.) Bridges to other DBER fields are being built—with much of the “infrastructure” for the other areas coming out of PER itself. Hopefully, the overall outcome of all these efforts is a better, more accurate picture of student learning and understanding. When you boil down all the different reasons for why we do PER, you end up with the student. How can we help students understand physics?

Our impact

An interesting aspect of PER is that the people who want to apply our research results far outnumber those actually doing the work. Given that PER got its start in AAPT, we’ve always had a tight connection to teachers in the classroom. Many of us, me included, earned our bread and butter by engineering direct applications of what we were finding out about student learning. It is worth remembering that a major chunk of the initial funding for my SCALE-UP project came from NSF’s Instructional Materials Development program of the mid-1990s. Back then proposals had to hide research inside a very carefully crafted evaluation of the impact of your newly developed curricular materials. Now it works the other way around. Grants are available specifically for discipline-based education research. We’ve come a long way.

Thanks for the memories!

So, as I close out my time in this field, let me say how much fun it has been watching PER develop and mature. (Although there have been a few growing pains I would have preferred avoiding!)  It has been a privilege getting to know a few of the many different folks who comprise our field. From grad students hanging up their first posters to post-docs dreaming of tenure, from PER-soloists to big and small PER group members—all of you have been tremendous colleagues. Thank you for letting me be a part of this great effort. And all of us together should thank the teachers who have tried out the things we have uncovered and then returned with real-world suggestions and even more questions for further research. Isn’t it a wonderful endeavor?!

Tags: history  conference  APS  research  teaching  

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