Research as a Base to Develop Adaptable Curricula Bridging Instructional Paradigms in Quantum Mechanics

Investigators: Steven Pollock; Collaborators: Gina Passante (Cal State Fullerton) and Homeyra Sadaghiani (Cal Poly Pomona)

Student understanding of quantum mechanics is a topic of increasing interest in PER.  Most of the research and curriculum development has taken place in the context of position-first instruction, where wave functions are typically the first quantum states students encounter.  This is in contrast to spins-first instruction, where students are introduced to quantum mechanics in the context of spin-1/2 system.  Our collaborative IUSE project studies the differences in student understanding in these two popular instructional paradigms.  Project goals include developing and assessing curricula that are specifically tailored to each instructional context , and researching student learning (and challenges to learning) in the two paradigms. This work is funded, in part, by an NSF IUSE grant.


Transformation of Experimental Physics 1

Investigators: Daniel Bolton, Heather Lewandowski, Mike Dubson

Multiple measures point to a failure of CU’s freshman physics lab course in achieving its goals. In fact, its goals are not even clear! After running a series of one-on-one interviews, surveys, and round-table discussions, the team formed a set of learning goals and secured funding for this course transformation. During the entire 2017 calendar year, vigorous work has gone into designing new course format, experiments, and written guides for a transformed course that will be taught starting in 2018. This work was funded, in part, by TRESTLE.


Modern Physics

Investigators: Jessica Hoehn, Julian Gifford, Noah Finkelstein; Collaborators: Ayush Gupta, Erin Sohr, Andy Elby, Brandon Johnson (University of Maryland)

In this project, the Colorado and Maryland physics and engineering education research groups will combine forces to improve quantum physics education for future engineers on a broader scale. Specifically, we will: 

(1) Refine curricular modules on quantum mechanics topics, starting from previously developed materials and honing them to focus on development of productive ontological conceptions and metacognitive awareness in using those conceptions. 

(2) Create associated instructor support materials to help instructors adapt and implement the modules effectively.

(3) Carry out extensive research and evaluation of our materials and of students’ development as “quantum reasoners,” across ~8 participating institutions. 


Developing research-based Tutorials in Upper-division Electricity and Magnetism

Investigators: Stephanie Chasteen, Steven Pollock, Bethany Wilcox (Funded by NSF CCLI 1023028, formally concluded in 2015)

Our project began by gathering interested faculty (PER and traditional physics faculty from across the US) in a short summer workshop to discuss common learning goals for this sequence. Building on the outcomes of that meeting, we took a three-pronged approach. We investigated student difficulties with highlighted areas from the course goals, we developed a new pre-post assessment for Electrodynamics while modifying and validating our existing assessment for Electrostatics to make it more reliable to grade (and simpler to administer) and we began developing, implementing, and testing a host of curricular materials including a suite of clicker questions, weekly in-class Tutorials (student-centered activities) and novel homework problems. Materials were developed around known common learning difficulties and targeted at our consensus learning goals. (See and The materials have been used at a variety of institutions, and feedback from pilot sites has allowed us to productively modify materials to better suite a broader set of demographic backgrounds. Our E&M 1 assessment (called the CUE) has been given to over 700 students in 22 courses at 7 institutions plus our own (CU Boulder) - see attached figure -  and has demonstrated the benefits of our transformed materials compared to traditionally taught courses.

Investigators: Heather Lewandowski, Dimitri Dounas-Frazer, Benjamin Pollard, Laura Rios, Robert Hobbs

We study how students obtain experimental research skills in the context of upper-division instructional labs and undergraduate research experiences. In addition, we work to transform these classroom experiences to help students better transition into the research lab environment. For more details, please visit the Lewandowski PER website.  

Modern Physics

Investigators: Jessica Hoehn, Julian Gifford, Noah Finkelstein; Collaborators: Ayush Gupta, Erin Sohr, Andy Elby, Brandon Johnson (University of Maryland)

We conduct research on student reasoning about quantum phenomena, focusing on two main threads: ontologies, and mathematical sense-making. Ontologies describe a learner’s categorization of the kinds of entities in the world (e.g. what kind of a thing is a photon?). Drawing on sociocultural perspectives, we investigate students’ flexible use of ontologies when reasoning about quantum phenomena. Mathematical sense-making involves seeking coherence between mathematical formalism and representations of a physical system, in order to make sense of a concept or physical phenomenon. We conduct research studies to identify the ways in which students use math to make sense of quantum physics, and investigate the corresponding discourse processes. We take a mixed methods approach to this research, with an emphasis on focus group studies and analysis of collective discourse. The goal of this work is to develop frameworks for understanding student reasoning and learning itself (in the modern physics context). This has many implications for instruction and hence, the results of this research also help guide curricular development. We strive ultimately to create/refine curricular materials to support students in reasoning about the nature of quantum entities and engaging in mathematical sense-making

Departmental Action Teams (DATs)

Investigators: Joel C. Corbo, Noah Finkelstein, Mark Gammon, Gina Quan, Sarah Wise; Collaborators: Karen Falkenberg, Courtney Ngai, Mary Pilgrim (Colorado State University); Daniel Reinholz (San Diego State University); Andrea Beach and Jaclyn Rivard (Western Michigan University)

A DAT is a departmentally-based working group of about 4 to 8 faculty, staff, and/or students that work on a cross-cutting educational issue over one or two years, with the support of outside facilitators and the sanction of the department chair. DAT participants choose their focus by developing a vision for undergraduate education in their department; example foci include curricular/instructional revision and alignment, improving equity and diversity, and enhancing community among faculty, students, and staff. DATs both implement change and focus on creating lasting structures (e.g., committees, positions, policies) that can continue their work over time (rather than viewing change as a one-time “fix”). DATs maintain transparency by sharing information with and making recommendations for change to the chair, appropriate departmental committees, and the department as a whole. Pilot DATs at CU Boulder initiated a variety of structural changes within their departments, including the allocation of several instructor course equivalents to serve as curriculum coordinators; the formation of a standing committee focused on student diversity, retention, and recruitment; and the restructuring of a course sequence to better support majors transitioning to upper division.

The current DAT project focuses on facilitating and studying new DATs at CU and at CSU to to develop: (1) a process for enculturating DAT facilitators and institutionalizing DATs in campus Teaching and Learning Centers (TLCs), (2) theory of how DATs operate in different contexts, and (3) cultural and structural change metrics.


Scaling Undergraduate STEM Transformation And Institutional Networks for Engaged Dissemination (SUSTAINED)

Investigators: Valerie Otero, Laurie Langdon, Ian HerManyHorses, Susan Hendrickson; Collaborators: Mel Sabella and Andrea Van Duzor (Chicago State University); Mary Nelson (George Mason); Manher Jariwala and Kathryn Spilios (Boston University); Ben Van Dusen (Chico State)

The Learning Assistant (LA) model is a model of institutional change, which seeks to impact institutional values and practices through a low-stakes, bottom-up system of course assistance by awarding LAs to faculty, courses. LA programs on campuses throughout the nation intend to improve the conditions for learning particularly in large enrollment, undergraduate courses on multiple fronts and to recruit math and science majors to careers in teaching. The International Learning Assistant Alliance supports faculty and institutions in developing and building their programs. This project builds social and technological tools designed to bring about structural change in faculty-institution interactions pertaining to student learning.


Teaching Quality Framework (TQF)

Investigators: Joel C. Corbo, Mark Gammon, Noah Finkelstein, Jessica Keating; Collaborators: Daniel Reinholz (San Diego State University)

Building on decades of earlier scholarship, we have developed a Teaching Quality Framework (TQF) that focuses on assessing teaching as a scholarly activity using evidence gathered from faculty members, their students, and their peers. It is designed to provide a common language across campus for making merit, tenure, and promotion decisions, with the intent for individual departments to customize the details of the framework to fit their disciplinary norms. Ideally, this framework will shift the culture at CU around what it means to be an excellent teacher and simultaneously provide faculty with formative feedback to develop as teachers. Several departments have agreed to contextualize and text the framework over the coming year, with the support of the administration.


The Access Network

Investigators: Joel C. Corbo, Dimitri Dounas-Frazer, Gina Quan; Collaborators: Anna Zaniewski (Arizona State University), Scott Franklin and Cory Ptak (Rochester Institute of Technology), Daniel Reinholz (San Diego State University), Chandra Turpen (University of Maryland), Angie Little (Michigan State University)

The Access Network consists of ten university-based programs co-working with graduate and undergraduate students across the country towards a vision of a more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible STEM community. At the university level, Access sites focus on fostering supportive learning communities, engaging students in authentic science practices, and attending to students’ development as STEM professionals. At the national level, Access expands on local efforts  by cultivating inter-institutional communities and facilitating the sharing of ideas across sites. To realize its vision, Access and its member programs empower students as co-leaders, giving them voice and ownership over local and national efforts.


Transforming Education, Stimulating Teaching and Learning Excellence (TRESTLE)

Investigators: Stephanie Chasteen (PI)

The Transforming Education, Stimulating Teaching and Learning Excellence (TRESTLE) project is a multi-institutional, STEM-broad project focused on encouraging cultural change within departments with respect to the use of evidence-based teaching practices.  Rostered in the Center for STEM Learning, TRESTLE provides funds for embedded expertise within departments (building on the Science Education Initiative model), provide expertise and time for faculty engaged in course transformation projects, and a platform for sharing of ideas across departments.

The CU PER group works to achieve two main informal ed objectives.  First, we provide first-rate outreach opportunities that benefit both community members and CU volunteers through programs like PISEC and the STEAM site initiative. Second, we conduct cutting-edge research on informal physics education. Topics of study include student and volunteer science identity, volunteer teaching practices, student framing of science, nature of creativity, and the effect of program participation on both volunteers and community members. 


Investigators: Mike Bennett, Brett Fiedler, Noah Finkelstein.  With collaborators Kathleen Hinko (MSU), Claudia Fracchiolla (NUI-Galway), Shane Bergin (UC Dublin)

The Partnerships for Informal Science Education in the Community is the JILA PFC-sponsored outreach program, administered in partnership with the PER group.  PISEC typically visits 3-5 community sites each semester and provides opportunities to explore science through facilitated hands-on experiments.  Read more about PISEC here.

PISEC STEAM Initiative

Investigators: Simone Hyater-Adams, Tamia Williams, Claudia Fracchiolla, Kathleen Hinko, Noah Finkelstein

PISEC partnered with a high school in Denver to run a STEAM site where students were able to build electrostatic paddles and create and record performances with them. This site has only run once, but work continues to be done to study the impact of the performance arts on the development of physics identity. From this work, a new and improved site will be developed and piloted.

What do physicists from majority groups know and believe about race and gender?

Investigators: Joel C. Corbo, Melissa Dancy, Dimitri Dounas-Frazer

The majority of research and efforts to address inequity in physics (e.g., summer camps, mentoring programs, tutoring programs) is directed at members of marginalized groups. These efforts, while valuable, are insufficient as they fail to account for cultural and structural factors that support and maintain inequity. Addressing inequity is ultimately an issue of cultural change, and true cultural change requires the involvement of members of the majority population in making that change. This project is firmly grounded in a cultural model of understanding and addressing inequity through characterizing the underlying beliefs about race and gender of white male physicists. We will interview 120 self-identified white male physics students and faculty at five research intensive universities to learn about their knowledge of and beliefs about gender and race issues in physics and underlying cultural mechanisms that contribute to inequity and underrepresentation.


Broadening Women's Participation in STEM: The Critical Role of Belonging

Investigators: Tiffany A Ito, Jane G Stout (Psychology), Noah D Finkelstein, Steven J Pollock (Physics)  

The overall goal of the project is to understand processes responsible for gender disparities in STEM achievement and representation. We are specifically focusing on the critical role of gender disparities in belonging, or the degree to which men tend to feel a greater sense of acceptance, fit, and respect within STEM fields than do women. The project is specifically examining (1) factors that impact feelings of belonging to identify how women come to typically experience a lower sense of belonging than do men and (2) mechanims through which belonging impacts STEM achievement and representation. These goals are to be met with a combition of large scale survey and smaller-scale lab studies.


Understanding Race and Physics: Creating a Framework for Examining Physics Identity for Black Students

Investigators: Simone Hyater-Adams, Claudia Fracchiolla (NUI-Galway), Noah Finkelstein, Kathleen Hinko (Michigan State University)

Studies of physics identity are growing in order to respond to the increasing attention to the underrepresentation of students of color in physics. In our research, we focus our efforts on understanding how racial identity and physics identity are negotiated throughout the experiences that black physicists have while engaging in the field. In this effort, we develop an operationalized framework that can be used to examine racialized physics identity and demonstrate the methods we use to analyze data by applying this framework to interviews of physicists. In addition to undestaning narratives, we outline three methods of analysis  to demonstrate how this framework can highlight systems and structures that frame patterns of experiences for black students.

Faculty Online Learning Communities

Investigators: Melissa Dancy, Allie Lau, Charles Henderson (Western Michigan University)

Faculty Online Learning Communities (FOLCs) support new physics and astronomy faculty as they implement research-based instructional strategies in their classrooms.  For the year following their attendance at the national Physics and Astronomy New Faculty Workshop, the FOLCs connect faculty from across the country through virtual meetings on a video conference platform.  Research on the FOLCs takes place in three main areas:

  1. Do FOLCs help faculty sustain the implementation of research-based teaching practices?

  2. What kind of support community develops in the FOLCs?

  3. What are the best practices for facilitating these online communities?

The goal of the FOLCs is to help faculty become reflective practitioners of proven teaching strategies.

Founded in 2002 by Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman, the PhET Interactive Simulations project at the University of Colorado Boulder creates free interactive math and science simulations. PhET sims are based on extensive education research and engage students through an intuitive, game-like environment where students learn through exploration and discovery.

PhET conducts research on both the design and use of interactive simulations to better understand:

  1. Which characteristics make these tools effective for learning and why
  2. How students engage and interact with these tools to learn, and what influences this process
  3. When, how, and why these tools are effective in a variety of learning environments

The PhET simulation design principles are based on research on how students learn (Bransford et al., 2000) and from our simulation interviews (see PhET Design Process). Between four and six think-aloud style interviews with individual students are done with each simulation. These interviews provide a rich data source for studying interface design and student learning. The PhET Look and Feel briefly describes our interface design principles and a complete discussion is found in the pair of papers by Adams et al., 2008.

See the PhET website for more information.