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By Abigail Dove
The APS Topical Group on Physics Education Research (GPER) is a home for members interested in research on the learning and teaching of physics—a broad, multidisciplinary area encompassing everything from institutional practices to neural and cognitive processes to the social and contextual components of physics educational practices.
Physics education research (PER) falls within the purview of the emerging area of discipline-based education research, a field that focuses on the comprehensive study of learning and teaching in particular academic disciplines, most often (but not exclusively) at the university level.
Researchers in the GPER community are also focused on wider aspects of the teaching, learning, and practice of physics that extend beyond physics content itself. “For example, we need to ensure that students' attitudes and habits of mind in physics classes are strengthened by our courses,” explained GPER chair-elect Mila Kryjevskaia (North Dakota State University). “We also need to ensure that our instructional efforts support all students rather than a subpopulation of students. Do we provide adequate support for those students who need it most? Do our instructional activities and techniques help build classroom environments that promote diversity and inclusion, as well as enjoyment and appreciation of science? How can we support faculty who would like to implement research-based instructional approaches in their classrooms? High school teachers are critical for shaping the future of the physics community, what do we need to do to prepare and support them better?”
While PER represents a relatively young sub-field of physics, it is one of the most well-established areas of discipline-based education research, more mature than corresponding education research in other STEM fields like biology, chemistry, and engineering. GPER was established in 2014 with the goal of integrating the rapidly expanding PER field into the broader physics community. Since then, the field has continued to thrive and expand, both in size and scope. “It is not uncommon anymore to see a physics education researcher on a faculty roster in a department of physics,” according to Kryjevskaia. “Often, PER faculty contribute substantially to the health of the department by bringing in knowledge in education to the department, as well as contributing to generalized knowledge about teaching and learning physics.”
Mirroring the growth of the PER field, GPER is a fast-growing unit, with membership consistently above 600. Notably, almost half of GPER’s members are students or early career scientists, signifying the vibrance of this new field and foreshadowing continued growth of the PER community. At more than 30%, GPER also boasts one of the highest proportions of female membership across all APS units.
GPER has a strong presence at the annual APS April Meeting, sponsoring or co-sponsoring at least two sessions every year, often in collaboration with the Forum on Education (FEd; see APS News June 2020). “APS meetings are a great opportunity for me to engage in conversations with other APS members who do not specialize in physics education research,” noted Kryjevskaia. “When a GPER-sponsored session is full of faces I do not recognize, I consider it to be a great success.” After all, even physicists who are not directly involved in undergraduate teaching have a stake in physics education, whether that takes the form of mentoring graduate students and post-docs or training new hires in industry.
In the age of coronavirus, many APS members may be thinking especially deeply about physics education—particularly the urgent issue of how to optimize pedagogy for remote learning. To this end, several of this year’s GPER-sponsored sessions focused on pandemic-related topics, including recent research on impact of remote learning in the physics classroom, strategies for teaching physics online, and perspectives on how the graduate admissions process might be re-thought in the post-COVID world.
For APS members interested in learning more about physics education research in general, the Physical Review Physics Education Research (PRPER) journal published by APS is an excellent resource. The most recent edition of PRPER highlights issues ranging from student experimentation decisions in introductory laboratories to the effects of transforming homework assignments using the principles of deliberate practice and to the effect of culture on women physicists’ career choices.
Additionally, many findings from GPER researchers are synthesized in the Effective Practices for Physics Programs (EP3) Project, an initiative led by APS in collaboration with the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) to document evidence-based recommendations and best practices for undergraduate physics education. The aim of EP3 is to develop a resource that will help a wide variety of physics programs strive for excellence within their particular opportunities and constraints, recognizing that what makes for a thriving physics program at a private university is not necessarily the same as that for a liberal arts college, a large state school, or a community college.
Going forward, the GPER executive committee’s goals for the unit are two-fold: Looking inward, to continue the advancement of PER as a sub-discipline of physics; looking outward, to advocate for further integration of PER into the broader physics community. “We need to sustain and develop venues that foster new conversations between researchers in physics education and APS members who do not specialize in PER,” explained Kryjevskaia. “I would like GPER to continue promoting an environment that welcomes and supports everyone, particularly those who are just beginning a new journey and who rely on our community for support, regardless of whether that support is needed in the areas of research, teaching, mentoring, or career development.”
Overall, GPER stands out a vibrant community for sharing ideas, resources, and research about physics education. More information on this unit can be found on the GPER website.
The author is a freelance writer in Stockholm, Sweden.
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine