Brokk’s reflections on AAPT Summer Meeting 2018

During my AAPT SM18 experience, I focused on presentations and posters from three main areas in which I have deep personal interest: IPLS/curriculum development, diversity/equity in physics, and self-efficacy/attitudes. In addition, I attended several sessions related to areas of interest for our department, specifically on integrating computation through the curriculum. In this post, I will synthesize and reflect on my take-aways from the conference. I saw a lot of good talks. As such, this post is somewhat long.

Curriculum development specifically as it applies to introductory physics for life-sciences (IPLS)

Given my work on Physics 131 and 132, Introductory Physics for Life Sciences (IPLS) is, of course, a very pressing interest. The three largest themes which resonated with me revolved around: using biologically authentic problems, enhancing students’ sensemaking through required use of multiple representations, and respecting students’ biology knowledge. While none of these ideas are new to the IPLS community (several of these concepts are already integrated into our 131 and 132 courses), there were some nice ways of articulating these ideas as well as things I can immediately take to my own classrooms starting this fall.

Biologically authentic problems

In terms of using biologically authentic problems, Geller et al from Swarthmore College in AG03 – Assessing the Longitudinal Impact of IPLS suggest a particular approach: start with a complex setup such as a cell membrane, develop a simple model such as a parallel plate capacitor, and then develop the physics. Throughout the development of the physics, you return over-and-over to your biologically authentic example refining your model. Over time, the students hopefully develop an answer to questions like, “What does it mean to say that there is a potential difference across a cell membrane?”

Reflecting on the courses that I teach, I have realized that most of my more-successful units have the essence structure. Impulse is motivated by understanding the jump, entropy is, initially, motivated by the free expansion, and circuits are motivated by the neuron. Even in some of these examples, such as the neuron, I feel that discussing the biological example earlier and using that as a corner stone to develop the concepts, of resistors for example, would be a better way to do things. In future refinements, I would like think about a common theme. I must keep in mind biological authenticity; a cheetah chasing an antelope is not a biologically authentic problem, but a physics problem with biology grafted on top.

Grokking and enhancing students’ sensemaking through required use of multiple representations

Session CB – PER: Reasoning, Sensemaking and Modeling had two talks that really got me thinking about the importance of students’ use of multiple representations. I implicitly value students being able to use graphs, pictures, and words, as well as mathematics, to think about physics. In fact, the second course goal for physics 131 and 132 is that

These principles (of physics) can be expressed in multiple different ways… When people think of physics they tend to think of equations. However, the ideas of physics can be represented in words (as was done in Europe in the days before Isaac Newton!) pictures, and graphs. As a budding scientist, it is important for you to be able to think of ideas in multiple formats and to be able to decide which format is the best for a given situation.

Tor Odden from Oslo University argues in CB09 – Grokking: The Endpoint of Sensemaking that the ability to use multiple representations and approaches to explain a phenomenon is manifestation of grokking, “a deep throughout understanding… it becomes part of your identity” according to the New Hacker’s Dictionary. Tor Odden’s concept of grok is best described in terms of an example: what happens when the charged plates of a capacitor are separated. Experts are capable of thinking of the fact that the potential difference increases through multiple lenses. An expert may think in terms of equations: C inversely proportional to V and d, and therefore if d increases, so does V. Another way would be to think of the fact that the electric field is constant, which, using the connection between electric field and electric potential, would imply that larger spacing requires larger potential difference.  While an expert will typically only use one chain of reasoning, they are capable of following any explanation using any abstract representation. Students, on the other hand, are typically only capable of following one chain of logic.

If grok is the ultimate end of sensemaking, and if grokking is dependent on multiple representations, then helping students develop multiple representations is critical. During CB12 – Developing Fluency: A framework for generating effective representations and tasks, Rica French from MiraCosta college explored a way to evaluate in-class questions. One key dimension is a measure of how many representations are key to solve the problem. More representations results in the possibility for more complex discussions between students. Note, this framework does not look at the complexity of the idea being tested, but the complexity needed to get-to and justify the answer.

In my own courses, I want to use French’s framework to evaluate the questions I use in class. My goal is to create more complex questions that help students move towards grokking. In addition, I explicitly want to ask students to think about concepts and questions from multiple angles, including on exams.

Respecting student expertise

I think that the final theme which resonated with me, respecting student knowledge, is particularly important in an IPLS course. Not only do the students actually have more knowledge in the biological and chemical sciences than I do, but also many IPLS students seem to approach physics with trepidation and feelings of inadequacy. How often have physics instructors heard comments along the lines of, “physics is too hard for me,” or “all physicists are geniuses?” I feel that these questions inherently show students’ lack of confidence in their own knowledge base. Nair et al from MSU in session AG02 – Exploring the Relevance of Physics for Students in IPLS suggested explicitly asking students for “their perspective as experts in…” (my emphasis). This framing really gives the students a lot of power. You are acknowledging their expertise as well as giving them an opportunity to be experts in an environment in which many students might feel that they are incapable of expertise.

Self-Efficacy/Attitudes and Diversity/Equity

The biggest resonance to me as I attended DB – PER: Self-efficacy, motivation, mindset, and epistemology and EH – PER: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion was the deep connection between these two topics. Preparing opportunities for students to have what Bandura[1] calls “mastery experiences,” providing positive social persuasion on ability, and recognizing the the impact of emotions seems to both be sources of self-efficacy[2] and important elements in creating a welcoming culture.  As such, I will reflect on these concepts together but from two different perspectives: within the context of a single course, particularly focusing on my IPLS courses, as well as within the culture of the department and physics as a discipline.

[1] Albert Bandura. Self Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1997.

[2]Sawtelle, Vashti, Eric Brewe, and Laird H. Kramer. “Positive Impacts of Modeling Instruction on Self‐Efficacy.” AIP Conference Proceedings 1289, no. 1 (October 24, 2010): 289–92.

Within the context of a single course

Through the sessions I attended I feel I have gained more skills on helping me create a more student-centered environment. For example, when students come to discuss their difficulties taking advantage of the team-based learning framework, a good phrasing from EH09 – Culture and Ideology in How LAs “See” (In)Equity in Student Groups to begin the conversation might be, “Why don’t you feel comfortable engaging with your team and taking more a lead in problem-solving/asking-questions?” This framing of the conversation puts students in a position that allows them freedom to bring up (or not!) external issues that they feel are hampering their engagement beyond simply focusing on the student’s own “deficiencies.”

This student centering approach, which dovetails nicely with my TIDE experience here at UMass, was really explored in the workshop An Intro to Race, Ethnicity, and Equity in Physics Education. This workshop was one of the best short-form sessions on such a topic I have ever attended. In addition to some good ideas for the discussions I have in P691G and P390T, such as, I had the opportunity to workshop what I might say when a student comes to me with an issue in which some aspect of their identity plays a role. Thinking about key principles  of your response in advance (as opposed to a script for example), seems like a great idea. Then in the heat of the moment, I will be able to focus on what the student is saying. I have typed out my principles values and will have them tucked under my desk!

Another way to more student-center my classroom is to spend some time directly addressing students desires. While I already so some of this with a hopes-and-fears exercise, I think a follow up exercise presented by Brian Zamarripa from UCF in EH04 – Characterization of Success in Physics from a Feminist Standpoint would be a nice addition. In this exercise, students really think about what it means to be successful in physics through metaphor. These metaphors can then be used to explore different meanings of what it means to be successful.

Finally, I want to expand my self-efficacy survey to include some ideas of intimidation. I know that many students in IPLS are intimidated by physics generally, and I want to make sure that my classroom is not, in some way, contributing to this effect! Mike Lopez at Ohio State University commented in DB03 – Evolution of Students’ Social Cognitive Attitudes and Beliefs that intimidation correlates more strongly to course grade than belonging. One way to think of these connections is to say that belonging correlates to grade with intimidation as an intermediary.

Within the context of a department or the culture of physics more broadly

The biggest theme with regards to diversity/equity in physics departments (and in the culture of physics more broadly) that resonated with me was the importance of fostering a sense of belonging [3] as well as a physics identity. One important aspect of belonging, as mentioned above, is avoiding intimidation. Again, as described in Mike Lopez’s DB03 – Evolution of Students’ Social Cognitive Attitudes and Beliefs, when considered separately, intimidation correlates more strongly to course grade than belonging. One common form of intimidation is grading on a curve; in such a configuration, students are not graded on their own merits but in comparison to how they do compared to their classmates.

The issue of different meanings of success presented in EH04 – Characterization of Success in Physics from a Feminist Standpoint is also important to departmental culture especially when the idea is expanded a bit. We really need to keep in mind that most of our students will NOT become faculty. Most will go to industry. I am reminded of How can we ensure that such definitions of success are respected and facilitated?

One particular fact that I think also merits recording is from EH11 – Increasing Visibility to Increase Diversity in Physics Graduate Programs by Lindsay Owens from RIT: Female students (espically of color) avoid schools that post ‘suggested’ GRE scores and actively seek out schools that specifically mention that they do no use the GRE. This fact, I think, has really important implications for increasing diversity in the graduate population; a limiting factor of the graduate student population’s diversity is probably the diversity of the applicant pool.

[3] Lewis, Karyn L., Jane G. Stout, Noah D. Finkelstein, Steven J. Pollock, Akira Miyake, Geoff L. Cohen, and Tiffany A. Ito. “Fitting in to Move Forward: Belonging, Gender, and Persistence in the Physical Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (PSTEM).” Psychology of Women Quarterly 41, no. 4 (December 1, 2017): 420–36.

Mathematical and Computational Techniques in the Undergraduate Curriculum

Here at UMass we are currently thinking about our major curriculum including ways to both improve the transfer of mathematical skills from math courses to physics courses and incorporate computation throughout the undergraduate experience. Due to these departmental interests, those of us attending AAPT made sure to attend various sessions on these topics to report back to the department.

With regard to mathematical skills, the most eye-opening talk for me was BA06 – Got Anything Non-Cartesian? An Analysis of Multivariate Calculus Textbooks by Dalton from North Dakota State University. In this study, he reported that less than 20% of multivariate chapters in the commonly used texts have ANY non-Cartesian coordinates. Furthermore, even within the text that use non-Cartesian coordinates, 75% of problems and examples are Cartesian. The result is that 95% of most books are Cartesian with effectively ZERO mention of curvilinear unit-vectors. For those few non-Cartesian problems, essentially ALL of the problems specifically specify which coordinate-system the student is expected to use. There are essentially ZERO problems where the students must choose the appropriate coordinate system. An important point raised by the speaker was that math is not teaching math poorly, they have different values and objectives. I think that this is critical knowledge as we in physics use non-Cartesian vectors regularly (magnetic fields are in phi-hat for crying out loud!). This may be one of the larger issues are students are faced with from a calculus perspective and I wonder what similar issues are present in the  linear algebra math curriculum.

With regards to computation, a key motto seems to be “early and often.” Several different institutions have explored various techniques to introduce computation earlier in the curriculum and then incorporate computational problems throughout the other introductory courses. Spreading out the topics reduces the load on the computational course and provides another means of representation to explore physics ideas (more grokking). How can we do this at UMass?