Morsels in learning physics with Distinguished Professor Eugenia Etkina

Updated: Dec 8, 2020

In today’s blog we talk to Dr. Eugenia Etkina, PhD from Moscow Pedagogical University and Distinguished Professor of Science Education at Rutgers University. Given that we only scratch the surface, you are encouraged to contact Dr. Etkina for more depth.

David: Hi Eugenia. Can you tell us something about your background, education, how you got interested in physics?

Eugenia: My father was a physicist, and my mom was a math teacher. I wanted to be a teacher, but math seemed too dry while physics had cool experiments, so I chose to teach physics in high school. With teaching came questions - why are some students struggling, what should students learn in their physics courses? This led to my research and eventually to my work as a university professor who prepares future physics teachers.

David: Can you give us some insights into the history of physics education?

Eugenia: History of physics education is as old as physics itself. Galileo used to have lots of students and took such great care of them that many simply lived in his house. Michael Faraday was famous for his excellent public lectures and Robert Millikan was known to be interested in improving teaching. However, it is only when we switched our focus from teaching to learning in physics, we found that all our great teaching did not lead to much learning (Force Concept Inventory Test, Hestenes et al., 1992 was an eye opener for physics faculty). This is when Physics Education Research started growing as a field and more and more evidence accumulated that traditional teaching (lecturing, cook-book labs, solving problems at the board) does not lead to learning and new ideas of interactive teaching methods emerged. I would say that in US the road to our modern thinking of what leads to learning was initially paved by many, among which are A. Aarons, L. McDermott, J. Redish, A. Van Heuvelen, and D. Hestenes.

David: In academia, we often hear the term critical thinking. Have you and your colleagues discovered how to turn students into independent thinkers?

Eugenia: We defined operationally what physicists do when they solve problems and create new knowledge and we created a whole learning system that engages students in similar processes. It is called the Investigative Science Learning Environment approach and all the curriculum materials created as a part of it engage students in critical and independent thinking. Those who are interested can read the book about ISLE and our recent publication in the Physical Review Physics Education Research. Here are the references:

Etkina, E., Brookes D.T., & Planinsic, G. (2019) Investigative Science Learning Environment: When learning physics mirrors doing physics, Institute of Physics, Concise Publishing; Morgan and Claypool Publishers, DOI 10.1088/2053-2571/ab3ebd.

Brookes, D. T., Etkina, E., and Planinsic, G. (2020) Implementing an epistemologically authentic approach to student-centered inquiry learning, PhysREV PER, 16, 020148. DOI:10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.16.020148

David: I taught at Harvey Mudd college for two years and they were running their labs following your strategies. Do you know how typical that is across the USA?

Eugenia: There are lots of universities in US and abroad that have labs that follow our methodology.

David: Do you have a sense of how much of physics education is run in the traditional, passive, lecture format in higher education around the world, and is the balance shifting?

Eugenia: It is hard to say. I would say that so far probably around 70%. Less of it at the introductory level and more at the advanced level.

David: How uniform are the conclusions of the physics education community? Are there different schools of thought? How do the ideas of Eric Mazur, for example, fit in?

Eugenia: Yes, there are different schools of thought. There are techniques (like Peer Instruction by Mazur, that are used only in large lectures); there are Tutorials (by McDermott or Redish) used in smaller group sessions; there is a SCALE-Up approach by R. Beichner that involves new ways of class organization and there are Modeling Instruction (Hestenes, Brewe) and the ISLE approach (Etkina, Van Heuvelen and others) that involve a completely new philosophy of teaching physics and reforms of the whole course including the lab component. I could go on describing many other innovations in physics education.

David: Many of our colleagues across the country ignore what emerges from physics education, as if it doesn’t concern them. Is there a kind of culture that permeates STEM fields which explains that?

Eugenia: Most faculty care deeply about teaching and want to teach well. Unfortunately physics faculty (and possibly other STEM faculty) while being very careful about the quality of their research do not apply the same rigor to their teaching. Anecdotal evidence (a student told me that they understood the material of my lecture very well) and self-reporting data (my students like it therefore it is good) are considered acceptable. Another issue is that university faculty teach without any formal training on how to do it (unlike K-12 teachers) and in most cases they emulate their own professors. Also, engaging students in learning is much harder than just teaching. It involves a lot of time commitment and learning on the part of the teacher. University system does not reward this type of time investment. I could go on and on about it. I just scratched the surface.

David: STEM fields are not very diverse but do they also produce uniformity of thought and is this a roadblock to students of independent mind?

Eugenia: They do, actually. Not only independently minded students suffer, but also underrepresented students. In physics those are women and students of color. Students who need different approaches to learning other than words and mathematics also do not have enough support. Our academic culture welcomes like-minded, like-able, and like-looking people. We have a big task to change this situation. There are many programs that aim to do this, both addressing the development of creativity and enriching diversity. But they are not enough.

David: Thank you Professor!

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