Published: June 15, 2012

A planet traverses the face of the sun.  Particles collide.  The energies that make up the natural world are contemplated and measured.  Physics can be a captivating subject, yet introductory course instructors often struggle with finding ways to help their students comprehend sophisticated concepts.  University professors face an additional challenge.  Because academic scientists often have backgrounds in research rather than pedagogy, they are armed with vast amounts of knowledge, but have limited experience with distilling that information and presenting it clearly.

For nearly a decade, CU Boulder physicist Dr. Stephanie Chasteen (a.k.a. sciencegeekgirl) has been working to improve physics education on the college and high school level.  As a research associate at The Physics Education Research Group and The Science Education Initiative at CU Boulder, she has devoted her career to developing resources and strategies that science teachers can use to help students understand difficult concepts.    Chasteen has given talks and workshops throughout the country and she uses podcasts and blogs to reach a wider public.   Her most recent project is a podcast series called: Learning about Teaching Physics, co-hosted by Chasteen and Boulder High School physics teacher Michael Fuchs.  In her words, this series is “a sort of Discover Magazine about teaching for science teachers”.

The first podcast in the series, “Seeing Isn’t Believing”, challenges old teaching strategies.   Dr. Chasteen and Michael Fuchs interview academics Eric Mazur and Catherine Couch about their recent study into the effectiveness of in-class demonstrations published in The American Journal of Physics.  Demonstrations have long been considered a constructive and engaging component of K-12 and college-level science instruction, yet Mazur and Couch found that demonstrations alone do not help students to learn a concept.   However when instructors asked the students to predict the outcome of the demonstration before it was presented, they found measurable improvements in student learning.

How can these findings be explained?  Eric Mazur and Catherine Couch believe that asking for predictions creates cognitive dissonance, which is a powerful learning tool.  Research like this, says Chasteen, can be a valuable resource for any STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) instructor.  Teachers can help students alter their mental models and retain information by requiring that they predict an outcome before a demonstration.  A minor change in a lesson plan can produce impressive results.

Dr. Chasteen hopes that Learning About Teaching Physics will encourage science teachers to integrate serious academic research into their everyday classroom instruction.  The podcast series is “intended to be a short, accessible, and well-produced way to learn more about findings from education research, on your own time” she explains.   In her small office at the top of the CU Duane physics tower, Chasteen excitedly rattles off a list of future podcast ideas.  She has been awarded funding to complete four podcasts.  If she receives positive responses from listeners, she hopes to expand the program.

Effective communication, it seems, is at the core of Chasteen’s work.   As a blogger, radio and podcast host and public lecturer, she is constantly searching for better ways to transmit information that will help instructors to be competent communicators in the classroom.  Learning About Teaching Physics is aimed at presenting dense research in a format that is user-friendly.    Giving teachers easy access to this information is crucial.   Like any education researcher, Chasteen’s ultimate hope is that teachers will use these research findings to nurture and encourage future scientists.

Learning About Teaching Physics is supported by a grant from the American Association of Physics Teachers (Physics Education Research Topical Group) and supported by the University of Colorado's Science Education Initiative, the Physics Education Research Group at the University of Colorado and sciencegeekgirl enterprises.

You can listen to podcasts at

Article written by Ashley E. Williams, ASSETT Research Assistant