INSIDE Chico State
0 April 4, 2002
Volume 32 Number 13
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico




Books 2001-2002

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The Joy of Physics:
‘Active learners’ taught real-world skills

Students often imagine that physicists live in a world of their own. Professor Xueli Zou and her colleagues in the Department of Physics are trying to change that with innovative physics learning laboratories that will equip students to deal with the real world.

“Our new student-centered physics learning labs are designed to let more students understand and enjoy physics,” Zou said, “and to develop the higher-level problem-solving and communication skills needed in the 21st century workplace.”

With grants and awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) ($500,000) and CELT ($45,000), plus strong support from the physics department and College of Natural Sciences, Zou and colleagues Eric Dietz, Cheuk-Kin Chau, and Christopher Gaffney have introduced the innovative laboratories in three calculus-based introductory physics courses: Physics 4A (Mechanics), 4B (Electricity and Magnetism), and 4C (Heat, Sound, Light, and Modern Physics).

This “active learning system” is based on experimental work done within the Physics Education Research community, from which Zou was recruited to CSU, Chico in 2000. This system addresses two key issues:

1) Numerous studies have shown that many students who completed traditional introductory physics courses still had fundamental misconceptions and lacked the ability to apply physics knowledge to solving real-life problems.

2) Research by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) based in College Park, Maryland, has determined that the three most important skills for physicists in everyday work are problem-solving skills, interpersonal skills, and writing skills, with actual physics knowledge further down the importance scale.

Yet these higher-level skills have not been well addressed by the traditional physics curriculum, Zou said.

Summarizing these and other independent studies, Zou described new higher-level aims for physics education: graduates should “learn how to learn”; develop the ability to conduct scientific inquiry; learn the process skills needed to solve real-world complex problems; design investigations, products, and devices; and develop teamwork and communication skills—all while learning physics.

In a traditional physics lab, Zou said, all the information needed is given, no more and no less, and students are required to collect data and plug in numbers. Students are not challenged to think creatively and critically. In the active learning lab environment, students may be asked to formulate and solve a problem, or develop a model to account for particular behavior.

“We are interested in teaching our students to creatively design and solve their own real-world physics problems,” Zou said. “Students work in assigned teams of three or four, apply physics concepts to devise an experiment, plan their solution, conduct the experiment, and evaluate the solution.” PC laptops and other computerized sensors allow students to collect and analyze real-time data.

An important learning component in Zou’s lab is the e-mail journal in which students reflect on what they are learning: What did you learn in the last two weeks? How did you learn it? What concepts still remain unclear? The journals develop the important “learning to learn” communication and writing skills.

Orion Davies, an engineering major, is an enthusiastic proponent of Zou’s methods, having declared a physics minor after taking 4A and 4B labs. “This type of approach is a lot more challenging mentally. It really requires the student to think, not just individually but collectively. It could improve the learning of circuitry, chemistry, biology, and many other subjects.”

As a former national textbook writer and editor in China, Zou was intimately aware of traditional physics education. In 1993, she came to Ohio State and joined the Physics Education Research Group, which had received an NSF grant with the purpose of training the next generation of physics education leaders. Having worked with internationally known physicists such as Kenneth Wilson (1982 Physics Nobel Laureate), Alan Van Heuvelen (1999 Milliken Award Recipient), and James Stith (Director of Physics Programs of the AIP), Zou became the first of the leading-edge researchers trained in the active learning system.

Along the way Zou became fascinated by the difficulties that students have learning physics. “The way physics was taught made students afraid,” she declared. Her goal now is to make physics more accessible, more enjoyable, and more useful for students.

Zou’s next project is to seek NSF grants to further develop a curriculum that incorporates development of higher-level skills and to develop evidence-based, Web-based assessment tools.

Francine Gair

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