The history of Physics Education Research (PER) #aaptsm13

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 17, 2013

One session at AAPT is focusing on the history of physics education research (PER).  Karen Cummings (Southern Connecticut) was commissioned to write a report on the history of Physics Education Research (PER), along with others in biology, chemistry, earth science, etc.  All these papers were compiled into a book on the status of Discipline Based Education Research (DBER).


Karen shared some of the highlights from that paper in her talk.

She remembered a particularly difficult question from the committee, which is why our field doesn’t do more research on students who aren’t science majors, or differentiate our results by major or gender?  A good question.

When did PER arise?

As she discussed with members of the community, she found that the general consensus is that PER began in the 1970’s.  This is consistent with the number of PER-related publications, which averaged about 1/year, then rose to 2/year in 2000-2005, and then to 10/year in 2005-2010.  However, the groundwork for the field could be said to have been laid as early as the 1900’s with John Dewey, or 1930’s with Piaget.  In the 1960’s Karplus, Reif and Arons began work in the field, generating momentum that picked up in the 1970’s.

What was the impetus for PER?

The main impetus was the realization that students weren’t learning in traditional methods.  However, some external factors were also important.  Sputnik  generated a new wealth of physics PhDs, and a new interest in physics.  Work in education became attractive to many physicists when the NSF began to fund improvements in education.   This funding gave work in education some credibility, as well as providing an attractive carrot.

What is the timeline for PER?

Some key dates in the field:

  • 1930.  AAPT formed, giving PER a home
  • 1950.  NSF formed, providing funding.
  • 1957.  Sputnik, sparking a new interest in physics
  • 1959.  Karplus begins work in physics education
  • 1968.  Arons moves to University of Washington
  • 1969.  Reif publishes on science education in Science.
  • 1970’s to 1980’s.  Lillian McDermott carries the flags.
  • Then over time comes the first PhD and postdocs in PER, and a gradual rise in the field.

How does PER compare to other fields?

Karen said that, among the papers from other disciplines, PER is seen as the leader in DBER.  We began earlier, and are further along as  a subfield.  PER was also notable because we are strongly associated with physics departments and physics professional organizations, which is seen as leading to much of the success of PER.  She feels that our affiliation with AAPT, which serves as a “home” for PER, is critical.  Many researchers immigrate to PER from other subdisciplines of physics, and R1 departments respond well to those immigrants.


Update 7/23/13

During the Physics Education Research Conference (#PERC2013), there was another session related to investigating trends in PER research.  I was curious and asked, why now?   Why are we doing all this meta-navel-gazing right now?  We had some interesting discussions on the topic.  Some ideas:

  • We’re bigger; there are more of us
  • We’re not all doing the same thing now, so it’s harder to talk to one another.  We want to understand our community so we can communicate.
  • Now that we have so many new people, we need to preserve our history and start to document what has happened
  • Perhaps this is the coming-of-age of the next generation of PER, as the most recent crop of grads gets faculty jobs.  And so we want to both preserve our history, and pass it on to this next generation.

There was also some discussion of where should we go?  What are the challenges and tasks ahead for PER?

  • We need to address broader audiences.  We’re mostly looking at calculus-based courses, not conceptual physics, and we are missing the two-year colleges.
  • We are missing the longitudinal studies.  However, the NSF doesn’t give funding for 8 years, and the lifetime of a graduate student is only about 6 years.  In sociology, they will study people over a 10-year span.  Why don’t/can’t we do this?  Is it because our studies are less fun to participate in?  (i.e., we ask people to come in and answer questions that they get wrong?)

Interesting stuff!


Update 7/26

Brian Frank also wrote a much more detailed blog post about the work referenced above (the gap between who we teach and who we study) on his excellent blog Teach. Brian. Teach.


Eric Martell July 19, 2013 at 12:56 pm

I’m glad they were discussing this, and even more so that someone asked that difficult question. One of the questions that is bringing me into PER from the research side is about different populations of students. I teach our algebra-based intro class every year, and it’s a very different population than the calc-based class. I’d really like to see more comparing the groups, and trying to find pedagogical techniques which will be most helpful for both groups.

jsb16 July 19, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Is there a similar summary for research on secondary-level instruction?

Stephanie Chasteen July 23, 2013 at 9:09 pm

Good question, jsb16, I’m not aware of a similar summary for secondary-level instruction.

Eric, interestingly, there was an entire poster at PERC on the topic of the lack of focus on diverse groups in PER. He showed some interesting data on the actual percentage of students in calculus-based courses vs conceptual physics, versus the percentage of studies on the two populations, and you could see a huge discrepancy. Same thing with the two-year college population.

Eric Martell July 24, 2013 at 7:16 pm

It certainly was easier at the beginning to study captive audiences, and many of the schools that had the resources to support the research were (and still are) larger, but that ignores a lot of the population of students we as physics educators serve, and the field of PER is mature enough to expand. It may require collaborations between faculty at the R-I schools that have the financial resources, as well as time to focus on research, and faculty at PUI’s and 2-year schools (not to mention high schools). In my experience, resources like the PER user’s guide have been extremely useful in getting started – it also facilitates introducing undergraduates to the field for their own research projects.

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