By Published: Feb. 3, 2022

Heather Lewandowski recognized for her work researching how college students learn physics

University of Colorado Boulder physics Professor Heather Lewandowski is one of this year’s CU President’s Teaching Scholars Award winners.

Researching both cold molecules and how students learn helped earn her the award, which “endorses excellence in teaching by honoring faculty throughout the university who excel and embody teaching, scholarship, creative work and research with excellence in all,” according to the award’s website.

Heather Lewandowski

At the top of the page: Cold atom-molecule collisions are studied in a co-trapped environment (The Lewandowski Group). Above: Physics Professor Heather Lewandowski is one of this year's CU President's Teaching Scholars.

Considered “an exemplary candidate,” Lewandowski was chosen for the award “from a record number of applications,” said Rachel Sassower, philosophy professor and Council Chair, CU President’s Teaching Scholars Program, in an award letter.

Lewandowski’s team slows molecules that would normally move at hundreds of meters per second, studying their collisions and reactions to better understand how we go from simple molecules to the larger molecules we see all around us—the quantum mechanical processes involved in making and breaking a chemical bond.

“We’re looking at how that reaction takes place, and what drives it,” says Lewandowski, whose work has applications to understanding the chemistry in the interstellar region—that area between stars that contains vast, diffuse gas clouds and tiny solid particles.

And since 2011, she has researched how college students learn physics and take on the skills of scientists—no matter what careers they later pursue, she notes.

Lewandowski began researching cold molecules after finishing a PhD in atomic physics at CU Boulder. Returning to CU Boulder in 2005 as an assistant professor, she zeroed in on both chemical and physical aspects—molecules’ structure and behavior as well as the chemical bonds that form between atoms.

To do that, Lewandowski’s team uses electrical fields in a process called Stark deceleration to slow down the molecules, then loads them into a trap that suspends particles within an electrical field. This allows the researchers to study the molecules for several seconds—far longer than they can observe zippy molecules under normal circumstances.

The team studies factors including the collision between two molecules that have different structures but the same atoms, arranged differently in the molecule.

“If those molecules collide, what products do you get? With this work, we can understand a bit more about how that structure relates to the reaction. Do you get different molecules as the product? What are those products?” asks Lewandowski.

A few years after starting at CU Boulder, Lewandowski began researching how students learn in her upper-level experimental physics courses. Aiming to prepare them better for the workforce and analytical thinking, she has published more than 50 studies on student learning and expanded the research to first-year classes. Her work is in the field of physics education research, an international movement to gain an understanding of, and improve, how students take on scientific thinking processes and learn physics.

Having the ability to teach while combining cold-molecule and student learning research is part of why she really likes CU Boulder, says Lewandowski. She’s also motivated, she says, by students’ excitement about experimental physics and their feeling confident that they can pursue a career. In experimental research, her graduate students learn many technical skills. For instance, some students learn to build analog circuits to collect and process data, or how to use data analysis to model that information.

Science isn’t facts; science is an iterative process of building evidence. I believe teaching that is somewhat critical, regardless of what career students choose.”

She’d recommend science careers because of that thrill: “Experimental physics is a lot of designing, building and troubleshooting experiments, which are useful skills broadly. And when you do finally get results, it is exciting as you get to share that discovery with the community.”

As her research in student learning builds data, her team aims to make class experiences “better and more authentic—so that students can think like scientists and can evaluate data,” says Lewandowski.

Thinking in that way, she says, “has never been more important” than during the pandemic.

“Science isn’t facts; science is an iterative process of building evidence. I believe teaching that is somewhat critical, regardless of what career students choose.”