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Tombros Fellows of the CESE: Stephen Van Hook - Physics

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Description of Stephen Van Hook's CESE fellowship project.

To download a copy of Stephen's Fellows Presentation, please click here.

Stephen Van Hook's Fellows Proposal:

Infusing Physics Education Research (PER) in the Introductory Physics Course Sequence

Physics Education Research (PER) has made many strides over the last decade and my proposed CESE Fellow project is to infuse more of the results of this research into the introductory physics courses (PHYS 211 & 212) at Penn State to enhance student learning. While I am incorporating many ideas from PER in my lectures, this project focuses on the recitation and laboratory since these course components are usually supervised by the faculty on the physics Introductory Course Committee (ICC), and not directly by the faculty member doing the lecture. Thus, there can be more continuity across semesters in these areas. In addition, the laboratory and recitation account for 60% of instructional time in these courses (and 100% for students who choose not to attend lecture), so improvements in these components can have a major effect on student learning. For example, in Dr. Noah Finkelstein’s recent physics colloquium (12/8/2011), he showed data from CU-Boulder in which the range of gains in conceptual knowledge by students increased significantly when conceptually based tutorials employing Learning Assistants (LAs) were used instead of more traditional activities.

The moment is ripe for this effort to have traction within the physics department. Dr. Noah Finkelstein’s recent visit to our department has helped many realize that there are advances in PER that we should be employing here at Penn State and my proposed project would greatly advance that effort. In addition, recent faculty hires are very interested in new pedagogies and several of these faculty members (e.g., Dr. Dan Costantino, Dr. Kirstin Purdy Drew) have agreed to give suggestions and feedback on these materials and help pilot the activities. In addition, developments in the College such as the STEM Teaching Group, the Center for Excellence in Science Education, and discussions about the formation of a Learning Assistant program have highlighted the importance of student learning. Regarding the LA program in particular, we recognize that our current activities would not be appropriate use of LAs since the activities do not generate the kind of rich conceptual discussions that LAs are prepared to address.

There are many existing resources already developed that I would review and adopt/adapt as appropriate for our context and needs. In areas where no high-quality materials exist that fit our needs, I would fill that gap by developing appropriate materials. Some of the work in PER and STEM education research on which these recitation and laboratory activities would be based includes:

  • Concept-building tutorials such as those developed by Washington State University (Tutorials in Introductory Physics) or the University of Maryland (Activity Based Tutorials, Open Source Tutorials). These types of materials lead students through discovering and thinking more deeply about fundamental concepts in physics. They are conceptually rich, in contrast to our current activities that are more focused on being algebraically complex. They are designed to address common student misconceptions about the topic, and to scaffold students through a process of concept reorganization. These types of tutorial activities have also appeared in other STEM areas, such as astronomy through the work of Ed Prather.
  • Process-Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL). The POGIL materials, originally developed in chemistry, are similar in structure to the concept-building tutorials described above but have a particular focus on (1) students looking at and making sense of data, and (2) using the data to build a conceptual model and then using the model to make sense of additional data.
  • Mythconception laboratories. This is an approach to laboratories that I developed a few years ago and used for several laboratories in PHYS 250 when I taught that course. Drawing upon the exciting use of scientific inquiry in the television show Mythbusters®, this approach addresses common and persistent student misconceptions about physics concepts in an engaging manner through presenting these misconceptions to students as “myths” to be tested experimentally in the laboratory. The students design their own experiments and carefully analyze their results to declare the misconception-based myths (or “mythconceptions”) validated (“confirmed”) or not (“busted”). This approach dovetails nicely with the POGIL tutorials since both focus on using data to make evidence-based scientific claims. This component aims to counter the observation that Lunetta, Hofstein and Clough (2007) made: “To many students a laboratory activity has meant manipulating equipment but not manipulating ideas” (p. 403).

An important component of this project will be development of instructor (i.e., TA) materials since instructors who do not fully understand the inquiry process may be inclined to make the recitation or laboratory “easier” in ways that short-circuit the students’ thinking critical to the activity. The materials would include questioning skills, student misconceptions about the concepts, promoting discourse among the students, appropriate questions that could be asked of students, and sample student work.


  • Spring 2012: Identify/adapt/develop and test out several recitations and laboratories in PHYS 212 in the spring (when I will be teaching it).
  • May 2012: Submit NSF TUES proposal for this effort, particularly the Mythconception Laboratories. I have been the PI on two proposals to the NSF TUES program for this approach in the past. We have received very good reviews but have still not been successful in being funded, though it’s common for TUES proposals to take three attempts before being funded.
  • May/June 2012: Identify/adapt/develop additional recitation and laboratories for PHYS 211 and PHYS 212.
  • Summer 2012: Testing of new recitations and laboratories in the summer PHYS 211/212 courses.
  • Academic year 2012-2013: Refinement of the activities during the academic year through use and student/instructor feedback.

Budget request: For this effort, I request three weeks of salary in summer 2012 for this effort since it will take a considerable amount of time and this funding will allow me to focus my time on this project. (Estimated $5200 + fringes). In addition, Dr. Costantino and Dr. Purdy Drew will be assisting, particularly with a summer trial of activities, so I request $1000 (+ any fringes) supplemental salary for each of them in summer 2012 to compensate them for a fraction of their time towards this effort. Finally, I request $1000 for equipment for the developed laboratories. While I will strive to use existing equipment as much as possible for the new laboratories, experience developing them has shown that there is usually something additional needed to be purchased (e.g., mass sets for a buoyancy lab).

Evaluation: The evaluation of this effort would consist of several threads. First, gains in physics conceptual knowledge would be assessed using standard concept inventories (e.g., the Force Concept Inventory for mechanics) employed at the beginning and ending of the semester. Even if we do not collect data before implementing changes, the literature is very clear that the traditional teaching such as currently employed in most of our courses, and certainly in our laboratories and recitations, does not provide gains on these surveys above 0.2, so we can comfortably set the 0.2 gain as the initial state for our courses. Second, we can use our database of exam question usage to ask questions used in a previous semester to compare performance on the question in the two semesters. Third, I would also look at retention in these courses as we make these changes. Fourth, student attitudes towards the activities are important since attitudes towards the activities drives motivation to invest in the activities. Brief surveys of subsets of students throughout the semester can accomplish this (e.g., do they feel they are learning from them? Do they find the activities engaging?). There are other aspects of student learning that are not often captured in our standard assessments, but I would like to discuss ways of assessing them, too: for example, student ability to design an experiment, student ability to meaningfully assess data, students views of what physics is about (e.g., do we shift them towards thinking of physics as “a rich web of ideas” and away from “lots of equations that I plug numbers into”).

Center of Excellence in Science Education support (both financial and expertise) for this project will make it far better and comprehensive than it could be without Center support, and will provide a valuable “stamp of approval” for this effort to innovate how we teach our introductory courses. Discussions about this project with other CESE Fellows and with the Center itself will provide a valuable sounding board and source of ideas, particularly in the area of assessment.


Stephen Van Hook's CESE Fellows Update

I have written or significantly revised 18 recitation activities and 9 laboratories for PHYS 211, and 3 recitations and 3 laboratories for PHYS 212. These new activities emphasize conceptual understanding, discussion among students in the group (usually groups of 3 students), making sense of data, and (for the laboratories) developing an experimental procedure instead of following a provided procedure, as well as making claims based on data. Many of the activities employ a narrative that holds the activity together and hopefully enhances student motivation.

PHYS 211 Recitations written so far:

  • Physics Pizza (Units, Scaling, Uncertainty)
  • A Day at the Races (1D Kinematics – Position and Velocity) – uses motion diagrams inspired by the first stop motion video ever (to study a horse’s gallop)
  • Acrobat (1D Kinematics) – emphasis on value of working in variables, not numerical values
  • Rocket (1D Kinematics) – significant update to existing recitation to emphasize conceptual ideas over equations.
  • The Trigonometry Treasure Hunt (Trigonometry/Vectors)
  • Escape from Miner’s Cove (Vector Addition/Subtraction) – significant revision of recitation to include conceptual elements
  • A Penn Stater in King Edward’s Court (2D Kinematics)
  • The Cirque Nittany Case (2D Kinematics) – emphasis on value of working in variables, not numerical values
  • Tractor Pull (Newton’s Second Law) – significant revision of recitation to include conceptual elements
  • Wall of Death (Circular Motion) – significant revision of recitation to include conceptual elements
  • Nittany Racing (Circular Motion)
  • Bow and Arrow (Work-Kinetic Energy) –revision of recitation to include conceptual elements
  • Bungee! (Conservation of Energy) – significant revision of recitation to include conceptual elements
  • Bicycles – the Linear/Rotational Connection (Angular Motion)
  • Equilibrium, Normal Force & Tipping (Equilibrium & Torque)
  • Art in the Balance (Center of Mass)
  • Planet X (Gravity)
  • The Pendulum Paradox (Oscillations)

PHYS 211 Labs so far:

  • 1D Kinematics (significant update to existing lab)
  • Drag and Terminal Speed (significant update to existing lab)
  • Newton’s Second Law (significant update to existing lab)
  • Interacting Objects
  • Nittany Adventure I (Elasticity and Newton’s Laws)
  • Nittany Adventure II (Conservation of Energy)
  • Impulse and Momentum
  • Crash Lab (Conservation of Momentum)
  • Nittany Adventure III (Oscillations)

PHYS 212 Recitations so far:

  • Interpreting Electric Field Lines
  • Parasitic Capacitance
  • Electric Potential (modified)

PHYS 212 Labs so far:

  • Electric Fields and Field Line Diagrams (significant modification)
  • Gauss’ Law
  • Advanced RC Circuits

Most recitations & labs (will be all) have detailed instructor guides for lecturers (in what circumstances to use a given activity, how to build on them in lecture) and for teaching assistants who actually teach the activities (how to introduce, what issues to watch out for, questions to ask at certain points, etc.)