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Courtesy of Lillian McDermott, credit unknown.
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Interview of Lillian McDermott by David Zierler on April 19, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/44460
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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Lillian McDermott, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Washington. McDermott recounts her experiences growing up in New York City as a child of Greek immigrants. She discusses how her education at an all-female high school (Hunter) and all-female college (Vassar) supported her choice to major in physics and, subsequently, to pursue graduate studies at Columbia. McDermott describes how she created professional opportunities despite the barriers facing married women in academia and the demands of co-parenting three children. She started working at the University of Washington Physics Department as a volunteer and eventually rose to become the first woman to be appointed, and then tenured, as a professor. McDermott explains the circumstances leading to her pioneering work in physics education research and the co-evolution of the field and of the UW Physics Education Group (PEG). She describes how the Group’s collaborative, systematic research on learning and effective methods of teaching physics has shown the way towards transforming physics education — at elementary to university levels -- from manipulation of memorized formulas to a process of active inquiry.
This is David Zierler. It is April 19th, 2020. It is my great pleasure to be here virtually with Dr. Lillian McDermott. Dr. McDermott, thank you so much for being with me today.
To start, would you please tell me your title?
Like your affiliation, your professorship.
Professor of Physics, University of Washington. That’s enough, probably, isn’t it?
Definitely. OK. So I've read your memoir with great interest. It was wonderful. And I'm going to use that as a basis of asking some of the questions for our discussion today. Let’s start right back at the beginning. Tell me about your childhood—your parents and your birthplace.
Tell me what kind of an emphasis you want for your purpose.
You tell me whatever you think is important for us to get to know Lillian McDermott. I know you talked a lot about your parents and growing up in New York. So just tell me whatever you’d like to tell me.
I’ll ask you a question if it’s all right.
Where in New York are you from?
Well, I'm from Utica, New York.
That’s upstate. My parents are both from Brooklyn. My dad is from Coney Island, and my mom is from Flatbush.
OK. [laugh] I have a picture now in my mind.
Did I mention to your kids that I was from New York, or you just took a guess?
As a native New Yorker, I didn't have to guess too hard.
[laugh] OK! [laugh] Very perceptive. [laugh] And I went to NYU as an undergraduate, so I got plenty of New York in me.
I know where that is.
OK. So tell me, first of all, where were you born?
New York City.
What neighborhood did you grow up in?
Well, let me see if I can sort of direct it. Washington Heights—you know where that is?
Near Fort Tryon Park. Very near For Tryon Park. Near the George Washington Bridge. I'm locating it for you. [laugh] Sort of put it between those two places. I went to P.S. 187. It was K through eight at the time. What else can I tell you that would be of relevance?
OK, tell me about your parents.
What do you want to know? You ask me, and I’ll try to respond to you.
OK. Where are your parents from?
They were born in Greece?
And when did they come to New York?
They didn't come together. They came at separate times.
When did your father come?
I don’t know the exact year. I could have looked this up, but I don’t know. Let’s see when. Well, it must have—in the 1920s.
That’s fine. Do you know where they met?
In New York City.
What did your father do for a living?
Well, he was a lawyer, and he was in the Greek government, and came to the U.S. just briefly—I mean, he thought briefly. He was a supporter of [former Prime Minister] Venizelos, and he left for the U.S. to get away briefly. Venizelos had lost to a pro-monarchy government and there was a price on the lives of people who supported him. He came for a brief period, supposedly for a brief period of time, intending to go back—because he had been in the government back in Greece. And he never went back. And that’s a story in itself. And he and my mother met in this country. My mother came to this country when she was 14 or 15 to get a better education that would enable her to teach English in Greece. Both of them came separately, didn't know each other, with the intention of going back. They didn’t come to emigrate to the U.S. But they did. And in those days, you didn't pop across the ocean as easily as we do now.
Of course. Where did you go to primary school?
P.S. 187. 187th Street in Manhattan and Cabrini Boulevard, right near the entrance to Fort Tryon Park. Right over there close to the entrance of Fort Tryon Park.
And what about high school? Where did you go to high school?
I went to Hunter College High School.
How was your math and science education in high school? Did you have a solid math and science education?
I went to Hunter College High School, which at that time was all girls. And it was entrance by examination.
And did you get the sense that a career in science was something that was available to you in high school, as a woman?
I didn't think in those terms. At that time, Hunter was - how do you—I don’t know how to say this in the right way—selective in the sense that you had to be a fairly good student, and you had to do well enough on the entrance exam or whatever it was you had to take. And I commuted by bus, Fifth Avenue bus, from where I lived close to Fort Tryon Park, to then Northeast 68th, in that general area.
Do you think that you received a good science and math education in high school?
Now, it depends how you define the term “good.” Yes, I think Hunter was—the use of the word “good” can have different meanings. And I think as far as high schools go, so to speak, it was good. I mean, it was an “all-girls school” good. There wasn’t that much demand for physics in an all-girl’s school... There were schools like Stuyvesant, but they were all-boys at that time.
Did you excel in math and science in high school? Were you at the top of your class?
Well, I never thought of myself that way, but I guess you might say I was. But I didn't think of myself that way. I just didn't—just didn't think of it like that. That’s all.
And what attracted you to go to Vassar College?
Well, I knew it was a good school. I liked the idea—I mean, I can’t remember exactly, but I guess I liked the idea of this being an all-women’s college.
At Vassar was your intention to major in the sciences right off the bat?
Not particularly. Very liberal arts type of background. It included the sciences, and being—you're asking the question to reflect on—I don’t know how to put it exactly. But I was relatively squeamish when it came to dealing with living things, and I liked dealing with—
Dissection and things like that?
Yeah, right. But of course I took biology. I took those subjects. But the idea of biological sciences—I was interested, but I could hardly kill a fly, so I'm not sure I would [laugh] have made it out very well in biology. I liked it. I thought it was very interesting.
But you were more comfortable in physics?
More comfortable. Also, it seemed more interesting to me.
Did you end up majoring in physics?
When? In college?
Yes. It was an all-women’s college at that time.
And what year did you graduate Vassar?
Let’s see—’52, was it? Must have been ’52.
And when you graduated, was your intention to go to graduate school right away?
And did you know at that point, right away, that you wanted to pursue a doctorate in physics?
Yes. The reasons are a little complex. I liked Physics, I found it challenging. It did not require killing things in the process, as Biology did at the time. I went to Columbia, partly because I felt I had to live at home. My father had died unexpectedly at the beginning of my Sophomore year in college, and I felt I had to stay home to be with my mother. I happened to like Literature and History as well as Physics, but I probably also thought Physics was more practical for getting a job afterwards.
Coming from an all-girls high school and then a women’s liberal arts college, and now all of a sudden you're in the Department of Physics at Columbia—was this a big change? Did you feel like this was a very big change in your education? Or the adjustment wasn’t so bad?
Not in my education, but certainly an eye-opener in certain ways. Because when I went to Hunter High School and Vassar, where it was all girls, and so that alone would make a difference, unless people had truly outgoing personalities. I don’t know.
Once you started studying at Columbia, did you ever have circumstances, where professors wouldn't take you seriously, or your fellow students might not take you seriously as a woman, or you never felt that?
Columbia was not a very kind place.
Well, you make that point quite clearly in your book.
Oh, I do? Oh, OK. [laugh] Because—it wasn’t that bad.
When you say “not very nice” how so? It was not a supportive environment? It was a very competitive environment?
It wasn’t kind. I mean [laugh] it’s hard to define that. …it was as mean as most of them. I think the fact that my high school and college were all girls gave me the confidence I needed to proceed in a male-dominated discipline, and to deal with the kind of intellectual arrogance that can occur at certain types of selective places.
And who were some of the—among the faculty, who became your mentors? Who did you become close with?
Close? In physics, the physics department—the faculty were mostly male. There were a couple woman professors, including Monica Healea, who were supportive.
How did you go about deciding a research field to focus on in physics?
Oh. That evolved.
At Columbia, I mean. As a graduate student. The process of choosing a dissertation topic.
Well, that’s in the book someplace. The circumstances kind of—let’s see, how did I decide? Well, a combination of the people that I encountered and circumstances. It isn’t that I went to graduate school with the idea I would become a nuclear physicist or anything like that.
So what was the idea? Or what was your goal, at the time?
At the time, simply to get a PhD in physics. I had gone to a woman’s college that was very supportive, where it would have been a natural thing to want to do.
At Columbia, what was your dissertation topic? What did you work on?
Experimental nuclear physics, and the Van de Graaff, and that’s—I say a little bit about that in the book.
Yeah. And what specifically? What was your dissertation specifically focused on?
Elastic scattering of alpha particles by oxygen 16.
And who was your advisor? Who was your dissertation advisor?
W.W. Havens, Junior. But I had—I mean, he was fine, but I had very little to do directly with him.
So you were mostly working on your own? You were not close with your advisor in terms of working on the thesis?
No. But this is not a complaint. I worked with his post docs.
And do you remember what year you defended your dissertation?
OK, so in 1959, you defend your dissertation. And then what’s your next move at that point? What are you thinking after that point?
My first child Bruce was born in ’59, three weeks after I defended.
And so then what do you do after you defend? What’s your next opportunity?
Let’s see. Well, we went to University of Illinois when Mark, my husband, got a post doc.
So we can reverse back a little bit. Tell me the circumstances when you met your husband. Where did you meet your husband?
In class. That's the best way I can put it. He was from the state of Washington, the other end of the country from here, certainly at that time. And so he and I were in the same year entering graduate school at Columbia in the physics department.
Mom was a city girl, and dad was an eastern Washington country boy.
That’s a little...
He went to Whitman College in Walla Walla. He was born in Yakima. And then for high school years, went to Walla Walla, where he lived a reasonably rural life, especially in the summers when he worked on farms. And mom, of course, had rarely, if ever, stepped outside New York State, I think, at that point.
Probably a slight exaggeration.
But you lived in Manhattan, didn't you?
I had gone to Pennsylvania. I know that.
Yes. But—but your sense of the West was a wild, untamed frontier.
Oh, come on!
Which is fairly common back then, I think.
He’s expressing his own prejudices. [laugh]
[laugh] Who defended first, you or your husband?
Probably Mark. Awfully close.
So you're getting into a situation where at the beginning was the idea that it was going to be Mark’s professional opportunities that would be prioritized between the two of you?
Didn't think of it in those terms.
So how did you think of it? You both defend. You're both coming out of Columbia. You're both eligible for academic positions.
And in those days, there were very strict anti-nepotism rules, which meant that the two of us could not have had faculty appointments at the same place. So I just—I didn't think about it that much. I took it for granted that he would be—didn't think of it like that—that he would be the dominant—I don’t know how to say it.
It was assumed that it would be his professional opportunities that would determine where you would go, and you would try to make something work relevant to that?
Yes. Now, did I articulate it in those terms? I don’t think so. But I think that would be fair.
OK, so you went with him to Illinois, and that was for what -- for a year? about?
Yes, then the professor he was working with, who had been at Columbia, was given a position at Columbia, and Mark went back with—I mean, we went back with him.
What was your husband’s field? Was he also in nuclear physics?
No, atomic physics. Experimental.
How did you like Champaign-Urbana? How was that experience for a city girl from Washington Heights?
It was fine.
Yeah, yeah. In some ways. It’s a small town, Champaign-Urbana. A small town. And the department was fine. I wasn’t officially a part of it. I can’t remember. And I could probably resurrect it.
Bruce is just born at this point. Were you trying to work anyway, or was that really not possible at the time?
If anything, I taught on a sort of substitute situation. Emergency, you know—“We need somebody who’s got the background. Oh, here she is.”
Were you ever concerned that your career might not go anywhere if you were just sort of playing a supportive role to your husband’s career? Or did you feel at that point like you could just keep it on pause until the right opportunity came up?
I didn't think in those terms. And my husband was very supportive, not just of his own career in science, but of me.
Right. So you come back to New York for a year for Mark’s position. And what did you do?
When we got back to New York, I began teaching physics full time at City College, part of City University of New York (CUNY). I was able to do this because my mother and great uncle looked after Bruce when I was working.
What was the opportunity at the University of Washington that came up for your husband? How did that come together?
He was looking for a position after being a postdoc, for a good experimentalist, and that was one of the places that had a possibility of a position. And the idea of going West—he was from the state of Washington to start with—it was positive. But it wasn’t I'm going there only because—
The story he used to tell us, David, was that when he was interviewing on the East Coast and flying to these places, he realized looking down from the airplane that there was no time at which in flying over the land he couldn't see city lights. And he decided that all else being equal or roughly equal, he would like to go to places where cities were less pervasive. So [laugh]—and Seattle was just such a place.
Much smaller back then.
In 1962, if you fly from New York to Seattle, there are very large expanses of time and place where you don’t see any lights at all from the airplane. And that he felt more comfortable. And my dad was—I don’t know whether “country boy” is the right way—his father was a Boy Scout executive during the Depression, and dad was an Eagle Scout triple times over and a really big outdoorsman. And so for all his—the other side of him, which was sort of egg-heady—he went to Whitman on a football scholarship. He spent one year doing that then quit, and then ended up being the valedictorian of his class. But he was very sort of rigorous and physical and very outdoors-oriented. So that is what I think pulled him back to Washington state, and mom went along with it. But I have to tell you one story, and then I'll shut up. So one of the ways—their courtship was pretty short, but it did span one summer. And in the summer, dad would go back and work in the pea farm and the wheat fields in eastern Washington. And when the wheat threshers would go through the wheat fields, they would roust rabbits and other animals. One time they scared up a badger and he clubbed it, skinned it, cured the skin, wrote a letter to my mom on the cured skin, attached a stamp to it somehow, plopped it in the mailbox, and sent it back to her in New York City. Which had a great effect on her [laugh]!
[laugh] When you came out to Seattle did you think of pursuing a job at UW?
No. That would not have been possible because of anti-nepotism laws.
But Lillian, you were aware coming to Seattle that there were other local universities and colleges that might offer you your own professional opportunities, right?
Sure, I worked at Seattle University for a while.
So my question is, when you came out, you came out with the idea that you would make your own professional way somehow?
Probably, yeah. If you articulate it that way, I could say yes. But did I sit back and say, “I am making my own professional way”? I don’t remember thinking like that. I just got to work.
What was the childcare situation? If you wanted to teach, you've got three little kids—who was taking care of the kids when you want to start teaching in Seattle?
With Mark’s support, we hired a woman to look after the kids and the house when I was at Seattle U. I would come dashing home from the office. It all worked somehow.
What were the circumstances leading to your teaching at Seattle University? Was there an advertisement? Was there someone on the faculty with your husband that knew about an opportunity?
It was a private school, as you probably know. A Jesuit school. And I could teach there—I taught there part-time.
What were the circumstances leading to you joining the faculty at the University of Washington? I think this would have been 1968. Is that right?
A bit later. Around 1970, Boeing, which was the major employer in the area, crashed and Seattle U. laid off its part-time faculty, including me. Right around then I learned that Arnold Arons, who had recently joined the UW physics department, was developing a new course preparing elementary school teachers to teach physical science. How this happened, I think, was that the then chair of our department was Ronald Geballe, who had 8 kids and took an interest in their education. And Arnold, who had come from Amherst College – a liberal arts school (and that’s important), had an idea of how teachers should be taught. So Ron arranged the opportunity for Arnold to create and teach a course for elementary school teachers. Naturally, it was put into the Physics department. Although we’d never met, I went to see Arnold and asked if I could help as a volunteer in his course. He accepted … Not having a regular faculty position was not my concern. I was worried that if I did not remain active in physics, I would not be able to return.
And then how did you come to get interested in physics education research?
Arnold had confidence in his teaching methods, and pushed an inquiry-based approach, which he saw as incorporating a Socratic method of teaching. Then I introduced the idea of doing systematic research to understand what were the concepts that students found difficult. I also made a point of writing up what I found, and I recognized what evidence was needed to back up what I was finding.
How developed was the field of physics education research before you?
It was not well developed. People were teaching using the Socratic method, but I don’t think it had occurred to people to do research about it.
Put another way, what exactly was the problem that you saw that inspired you to get into this area of study? It’s a very unorthodox career transition. If your specialty is experimental nuclear physics and now you're getting involved in physics education research and starting to get interested in how students learn, this is a very unique career transition. And so my question is, what problem did you see that inspired you or compelled you to take on this really this new endeavor? Not just for you personally but a new endeavor in the field entirely. What was the problem that you saw?
I found it interesting.
What was the problem that you found interesting?
The fact that you could do well—well, OK—the fact that you could do well and get by without understanding—and depending on how you define understanding, it becomes an operational question—I found that interesting. What is it that would make the difference? What could you do that would make a difference so that people didn't just memorize a series of facts?
I see. So you're saying that you saw that students were getting good grades but that didn't necessarily mean that they were really understanding the material.
And you know what? I was one of them! And I knew that.
You were one of them!
I knew that. I mean, the teacher didn't know that.
Because I was at the top of the class. But I knew I didn't—by my standards—understand. But I did just enough so I could be at the top of the class.
Wow. OK, that’s a real breakthrough, right there. That’s fantastic. So you recognized because you saw that in yourself.
You could see students who were doing well, but that doesn't mean that they understood the concepts.
All right, so there’s a series of questions that come out of this.
Can you take a slight pause and come back to it —what got you into physics?
I'm a historian of science. I'm not a physicist.
Remember, mom, he got his degree from Yale, and undergraduate from NYU-- in history?
OK. That’s OK. I liked history, too.
[laugh] All right, so my question is—how did you know? The purpose of testing, obviously—to belabor an obvious point, the purpose of testing is to demonstrate that you know the underlying concepts well. And so the assumption would be, if you do well on a test, then you understand the concept. So what insight did you have that allowed you to cut through that charade, so to speak? What was the thing that you got?
The nature of the questions that you ask and your expectation on the responses at that stage of the student’s development was the thing. One could do very well and not really understand what it’s all about. I mean, we were asking, “What does it mean to understand?”
So did this start out—? I'm looking for the origin story here. I'm looking for like the student who aced a test, but you had a sneaking suspicion that he or she really didn't understand, and then you pulled that student aside, and you said, “Explain to me the law of thermodynamics” or something like that. What was that story?
I remember, something which stayed in my mind, was I was having a discussion with a student and Arnold was standing next to me. And, I can’t remember the details, but I do remember there was this student trying to solve a problem and calculate how long it took a ball took to fall a certain distance, and he was counting an equal amount of time for each foot of descent. And I just stopped dead in my tracks. That is something no physicist would think. I said let’s start thinking about this some more. Arnold was standing next to me not saying a word. And the student realized what he was saying was wrong. Through Socratic questions I helped guide the student to a proper response. I think that was one of the moments that made Arnold decide to hire me.
That’s good, that’s good. So, you started putting together that there was this disconnect. How did you start to characterize it? How did you get at it?
Listening to students. Talking to them, asking them questions on a one-on-one. The kinds of questions you ask. I mean, if you ask a question that you can just simply solve by knowing which formula to apply it’s quite different from phrasing the question in such a way that you have to see the connection between what you're talking about and what the principle is.
This gets me back to my question about precisely what the problem was that you identified. It’s now clear that you have identified a gap between how students were testing and what they understood. But then how did you translate that into understanding what exactly the problem was?
Combination of several things. It isn’t so simple as the—
I would think, though, the emphasis was on the way the concepts were taught. If you go to one of mom’s labs, you see there are a bunch of people around tables with balls rolling and other things moving, and they are doing experiments and they are predicting what will happen when this ball hits that ball, or this battery connects to that sort of circuit, that kind of thing. And notations are being made regarding their predictions, regarding the best ways to explain why those predictions were an error, et cetera. It’s very experimental. It’s very hands-on. It’s not a matter of using different words while standing at the lectern. It’s a matter of understanding with hands-on experiments with actual students in labs what works best to get them to understand.
What my next question is—and this might be a little difficult for you to answer, because I'm asking a question that’s sort of beyond your experience. But it seems to me that what you have done is you have identified a very fundamental problem in physics education. And so the question is, why you, why University of Washington, why the late 1960s? It seems to me that this gap between testing and knowledge is so basic and fundamental, and yet you tell me that the field of physics education research is essentially non-existent before you develop an interest in this.
There was a lot of concern at the time that the US was falling behind in science education, generally, following Sputnik and all. I certainly wasn’t the only one developing an interest, although I might have been one of the first to make it a matter of systematic investigation, using scientific methods.
Why do you think nobody else had really ever bothered dealing with this in such a systematic way?
It’s a little hard to answer why everybody—but dealing with it in a systematic way is sort of a scholarly approach. I don’t know what the right word is, but anyway. And being able to identify specific ideas that affect how people think about—how students think about, let’s say, the physical world—I thought it was interesting. And then could you do something about it—but first you’ve got to find out, is it reproducible? Because if it only works with somebody who I'm looking directly at, it’s not good enough.
And at what point did you determine that this was something that you would really focus on as a central point of your career? Was this right away, or was that a gradual process?
Probably gradual. In a lot of ways it came about because of the opportunities that came up. First, as a volunteer instructor for Arnold Arons. Then, Arnold asked me to develop a similar course for high school science teachers.
I'm wondering if people thought, “That’s a nice thing to pursue, but then you should be in the education department. You should be thinking about this as an educator, not as a physicist.”
What mom did is she would always say, “Physics education is for physicists. It’s not for educators.” And the way she gave flesh and blood to that assertion is by rigorous experimental techniques. I think her work is now pretty broadly accepted across physics departments in the world, but I think it wasn’t at first.
But still, again, just to continue pulling on this thread—as rigorous as your research was, as statistically and as quantitatively rigorous as your research is, one could still turn around and say, “That’s fine. Then go teach in the sociology department.” Right? Even if you want to say like from a numbers perspective. You're still—as rigorous as your research is, you’re still not functioning as a physicist in the classic sense of the word. Is that a fair statement to make?
Well, right from the beginning this approach was developed by physicists to influence how teaching should be done in a physics department. And when Arnold received an outside offer, he negotiated for a new tenure-track position at the UW in physics education – and he was clear that he didn’t want the subject taught outside the department. So the position was created in physics. And that was the position I competed for, and got.
Yeah, but I think you ran into that “it’s not physics” attitude.
I think absolutely you did.
So you ran into that attitude. But at no point did you feel like people who felt that way actually stymied your intellectual interest or your desire to pursue this?
A few may have had that attitude. I'm sure they did.
Yeah. So what they didn't want- they did not want to change their model. And their model was standing in front of a classroom, a chalkboard behind them, and talking at people. That was the way you taught physics. That’s the way they were taught. And it was sort of a way to wean out the people who weren’t high-powered enough, so that if they—since they were able to flourish under such a system, why try to make changes when—because in a way, the difficulties associated with that kind of learning were filters for the less able.
Now on the question, Lillian, of the winnowing issue, was your feeling that the research that you were pursuing and the solutions that you were offering would be valuable to students no matter their aptitude? In other words, is what Bruce is saying—if the classical model is, “We're going to do it this way and naturally the smartest and the brightest are just going to naturally rise to the top, and that’s fine, because we can’t have everybody, all of the students, become prize-winning physicists,” would your response to that be, “No, I'm sorry, even a Richard Feynman would benefit as an undergraduate from the models that I'm pursuing”?
I think, David—remember what the people she’s teaching go off and do. They go off and teach physics to high school students. Right? In large part. And in high school is where the seeds of great physicists are sprouted, right? So who knows who you might be able to turn on in a tenth grade person or an eleventh grade person if you're teaching them the right way? Teaching them in a way in which they grasp the concepts, and then that excitement you get when you actually truly understand something is invigorating and inspiring. And that turns people into the physicists of tomorrow.
That’s an important point, actually. So Lillian, given your emphasis on statistical analysis, who were your undergraduates? Were they mostly education majors taking a physics class?
No, no. Over the years, we’ve taught, tested and developed curriculum for everybody from K-12 science teachers to under-prepared minority students, to undergraduates in calculus-based physics. And you know what? When you scratch below the surface, they share the same misconceptions!
You're saying your feeling was that no matter what the career interests of a given undergraduate were, even top students who wanted to pursue a career in physics itself—not teaching physics, but to become physicists—your feeling was that the methods you were developing and the problems that you were seeing were universally applicable, universally beneficial?
That’s a grand way of putting it, but I guess— My answer is yes.
It wasn’t just for remedial—people who didn't get science.
Although those people also were helped. It was—to the extent—there’s this feeling you get when you understand a concept for the first time that is not based on ability to manipulate formulas or get the, quote, “right” answer. That aha kind of eureka feeling is what you can get if you teach it the right way, and it inspires and invigorates students to go further. And there’s value there.
Now I want to move to questions about sort of building the infrastructure around this field. So you've identified a problem. You have enough institutional support where nobody is stopping you from pursuing this.
You have the intellectual freedom. You have the departmental support. You see that there are benefits that can be widely applied. Great. That’s all an intellectual proposition. To get back to Laurence Yaffe, the current Chair of the UW Physics department, and his characterization of you as the founder of the field of physics education research, it’s a field. You have to build it. So how did you build this field?
And you were traveling, constantly, to present in different parts of the world, also.
Wait. If we're going to have another participant, for the transcriber, you have to introduce yourself.
Hi. I'm Connie McDermott. I'm one of my mother’s two daughters.
Thank you very much, Connie. So the question is for Lillian to answer—how did you build this field? What does it mean to build this field as a university professor in the Department of Physics? What does that mean?
I didn’t know that was what I was doing at the time. Working with Arnold, I gradually became convinced that to influence other physics faculty, we were going to have to document things. I helped him write a proposal to the National Science Foundation for a series of what we called “summer institutes” at UW for in-service K-12 teachers in physical science and biology. It became our “lab,” the place where graduate students and postdocs did research and eventually where our curriculum was developed and tested. Gradually, we formed a research team. And people moved on to different institutions around the world.
OK, so when you start to reach out beyond your own department, who are the people that you are reaching out to? Are you finding that you have colleagues in other departments who are discovering the same problems you have? In other words, you need allies to build a field, right? You need people to buy in to the things that you’re working on and proposing. So who are some of the key partners as you're developing this project?
Other people who had the same interests as mine. People who were doing research on how people learn physics and what are the best ways of getting across ideas and principles. And writing them up in ways that you can defend—within limits—factually. I mean, just saying, “I tried this with my class and it worked like a dream”—or whatever the equivalent; I'm being sarcastic—is not the same as, “This has been tried several times by me and other people. These are the characteristics that seem to work best. Or don’t work at all.” In other words, observing carefully that the claims you're making actually follow—can you follow through to show the results you're claiming, and the conditions under which those results hold?
And in terms of the results, what is the feedback mechanism? How do you know that what you are researching and what you're proposing is actually playing out and is not just a theoretical proposition?
By trying it out, over and over again, and modifying it on the basis on what appears to be need. And documenting it. And holding it up, in a sense, for review by other people who can—
I think David was also asking—I don’t know whether you were asking for names, David, but there were faculty members in particular universities who were receptive?
In her book she extensively credits the many other colleagues she worked with over the years to build the field.
OK. So as you are starting to see what some of the issues are in terms of again this gap between knowledge and testing, how much of your efforts are you devoted to changing pedagogy, changing teaching styles? And how much are devoted to changing testing methods?
Well, all those last three things you mentioned depend on your colleagues at some level. I mean, how much effect—let’s say I'm teaching my class. I have certain ideas. They may work. Is it because of the way things are done, or is it the way that I have of explaining things? Or is it the nature of the questions I ask? Because that can make a difference. A lot of difference. So I'm not holding forth. I'm just saying that is a form of intellectual questioning. And that’s what I'm talking about.
But mom, are you trying to influence how courses are being taught?
Sure. But I'm not out waving a banner saying, “This is what I'm doing.”
But my question is in terms of emphasis, you're placing a roughly equal amount of emphasis on teaching and on testing?
Teaching and learning.
Teaching and learning.
Testing and learning are identical. ….Testing meaning exploring what people learned.
OK. To go back to the infrastructure question, to go back to the question on how you build this field, what are the most fruitful platforms for you in terms of what are the journals that you're contributing to? The papers that are really seminal—what are the journals that are receptive to your papers? And what are the conferences, the kinds of conferences that you go to that are attracting people to learn more about what it is that you're doing?
American Journal of Physics is one of the journals.
Physical Review. It depends. Special topics. On a different level, for different reasons, Physics Today.
Right, right. So my question is—and to get back to this foundational point—you feel like you're operating in the world of physics, and so you're publishing in physics journals. You're not publishing in education journals. That’s correct?
Yes and no. It depends how you limit that question. If you limit it to education journals that focus on physics, the teaching and learning of physics, that’s one thing. But if you're talking about education journals in which people have these opinions—maybe that’s not fair—theories—on research and education, that’s something else. I'm not a research education type. That doesn't mean that I don’t think about those things.
And where does the AAPT come in on this?
Well, the AAPT is the organization that is concerned with issues related to that.
Right. But how well developed is the AAPT by the time you come on the scene? Are they already there, and there’s a natural alliance? Or is this a dual trajectory in terms of what they're doing and what you're doing?
It was evolving. That’s always a safe thing to say. It makes room for additional ideas or correction of other ideas that don’t seem to hold forth. I participated in AAPT conferences and committees from early on. Over time views evolved. Over time, the AAPT has done a lot to encourage and support faculty in physics departments doing research in physics education.
Did you ever think about the extent to which the education research is unique to physics? In other words, are there things that are unique to the field of physics that influence the way that it needs to be taught? Or are you working in general principles that could be applied to biology or chemistry?
Well, let’s see if I can phrase it a little differently. I'm going to just say both. General principles, because it’s more important than any specific field. But definitely some things are field-specific, anyway, if you're concerned about students or whoever learning about a particular topic for a particular reason. I'm exaggerating, but if you think of a surgeon chopping people up in an operating table, we would like them to have the facts and to really understand the science on which their actions are based, right?
I want to ask now—let’s move to sort of more introspective questions that take a more holistic look at your career. What are some of the major takeaways that you have developed in physics education research? Some of the major principles on how physics should be taught that maximize students’ potential to understand the concepts? What are some basic takeaways?
It depends what you mean by basic. If basic means generalizations that cover a wide variety of situations, that’s one thing. If basic means in this particular area—I'm just making this up at the moment—that teaching this followed by that, by that, ends up somewhere, but teaching this, this, this, this is not as useful…. Not all roads—well, they may lead to the same result on a particular topic, but not all roads have the capacity to take people beyond a particular topic if it can’t be applicable to others as well.
Let me try to rephrase the question in a more concrete way. So you have a group of freshmen and you're trying to teach them how gravity works. And let’s say there’s the old style of teaching how gravity works, before you come onto the scene. And now decades of your work and dedication to this later, now there’s a new way, or theoretically a new way, a better way, to teach how gravity works. What are the general things that you have learned that can be applied so that the students are actually understanding the concept in a much better way than they were before?
Asking them to apply some of the concepts that they've learned in specific instances, and trying out whether those instances really reflect on what the students have learned, either by going to traditional—more traditional—exam-type questions and see how they come out, or just trying new questions that you might not have dared to ask.
Couldn't that be used, though, in biology and…?
I don’t see any reason why not. In fact, the first NSF Summer Institute covered biology as well as physics, and so did the Pre-Professional Program for Minority Students in Health Sciences.
When I've heard you talk, you've spoken counter to the idea of a single unified field theory of science education. Like even within physics, you do careful experimentation on each kind of physics problem. You don’t just generalize across, “Oh, this is how people learn about gravity so therefore I'm going to use the same technique elsewhere.” And in your book, I think that’s fairly clear, too. You have, “OK, now let’s see about electricity or electrical circuits. How do people understand that?” And you do a whole swatch of testing around that. Right, mom? I mean, that’s what you said in your lectures.
That’s one way I know you've gone to a few of my lectures, anyway. [laugh] But that’s right. I would say if there’s something general across topics and disciplines it’s learning how to reason scientifically. Whether or not a student goes on to higher levels, growth in reasoning ability may be the most important thing a student takes away from learning physics.
So then, are you mostly focused on undergraduate education, or is this applicable in a graduate-level environment also?
It could be applicable in a graduate level environment, depending how it’s done and the kinds of questions that are asked as a result of the instruction. Students in our group did their Ph.D. research on topics like special relativity and electrodynamics.
One thing I thought was interesting in your lecture—you said even the good students often reveal, if you probe, that they don’t really understand what they're talking about.
Me too. [laugh]
So—yeah! So then if you actually learn the concepts in a way that leads to deeper understanding, then I would think it would help you later on when you go on to learn string theory or whatever.
I'm interested in this question of the winnowing factor. In the old style of teaching physics, you winnow out the weak who don’t understand, and that the top naturally rise. But it sounds like what you're saying, and what Bruce articulated, is that even among the top students, they might themselves not necessarily be understanding the concept.
Of course. But they like it, and they're challenged, and they focus on what they don’t understand and think about it, and try—and care. If you don’t care, it doesn't do anything.
But this gets back to an early thing when you were talking even about yourself. You can excel in a class, get a good grade, get the right answers on tests, and still not have a fundamental grasp of the physics involved. A true, deep understanding. And that phenomenon might not be caught by professors teaching the traditional lecture-based, exam-based, non-experimental classes. Right?
So that would suggest that if the top students are benefiting from this approach as well, that seems like a very good recipe for ensuring greatness among the next generation of physicists, right? At least theoretically, right? I mean, when you put it that way, it’s a little scary. Like if the top students themselves aren’t really getting it, then what’s happening to the field? That’s just an assertion. Let me actually just transfer that into a question now. Because of the rigor of your quantitative approach and your many decades in the field, how have you traced the long-term effects of your research into the way that people that have gone through your program or have benefited from your theory have pursued their careers? I guess the question is, can you point to certain outstanding physicists today whose greatness or whose insights are clearly linked to either being directly benefited from your approach or tangentially because the research that you did and the theories that you pursued gained a large degree of acceptance among your colleagues, both in the University of Washington and beyond? Can you see that feedback?
Well, I'm not sure—
Can you draw a direct line between the work you've done and individuals who have flourished as beneficiaries of that work? That’s a tough one.
That’s a tough one, and I certainly hate to put myself in the position of making a judgment of that kind.
She certainly created an area, now, in which professors are hired at major universities as physics education people, right? That didn't used to happen.
Lillian, have you followed students beyond the undergraduate classroom? Have you followed students in the course of their career?
Only by—chance is a little too superficial. But only by association.
Are you referring to people who have gone on to get their degrees in physics and teach physics education, or are you talking about people who have gone on to get their degrees in physics and do another form of physics?
Well, that just would be hard—attribution would be very difficult —that you could prove that the reason they were successful was because of her course. That’s pretty hard to demonstrate.
Yeah, that’s a tough one.
OK. But beyond—fair enough. But beyond the fact that there are now university faculty positions in this field that you have built, which is amazing, that gets me back to my feedback question. How do you know in the sum total that the things that you have studied and the things that you have proposed—how do they stick? How do you know if they've stuck? How do you know if they have lasting consequences?
I don’t know for sure, but there may be—I think there are pockets, where you know in a particular area that’s narrow enough that it did make a difference how they were taught and how they think. A lot depends on the unspoken things that happen during a lecture, during a class, during a meeting with a student. I'm not sure. But I think that we should try, anyway.
I want to switch gears a little bit. You have been recognized and richly awarded throughout your career. Are there any awards or honors that really stick out as meaning a lot to you personally and professionally? Any awards or honors that really stick out in your mind as being a tremendous honor, something that you're particularly proud of?
I never think of being proud. It’s just not a way I think.
What about that has emotional significance? What about like the honorary professorship in Greece?
Yeah, but that’s different.
I think the Melba Phillips Award and the Millikan Awards were—both mattered to you.
They all mattered—
Just—I guess another way of putting that question is it seems to me that there was a point at which you had to work to really get your ideas accepted in the field. I mean, when you're building something from scratch, and inevitably there are going to be some people who question its value, I wonder if any of those awards signaled to you or more broadly that this really did make a difference. This really is important and meaningful research.
Oh. Do I look to that kind of thing to determine how important this is? Not really. Useful? I can tell you it is useful, at least based on personal experience within limits.
But that’s your own analysis. The awards are—they represent the community conferring that idea on you, right? It’s external.
It depends what the community means. What do the words “community”—who is your community? Because your community can think differently about different things.
I think I have a few final questions. Again to just take a broader survey of your career. How satisfied are you that the issues that you have worked on have been adopted broadly? In other words, your vista extends far beyond the University of Washington. The work that you've done, as far as you're concerned, really should be universally applicable. That it’s for physics departments not only all over the country, but all over the world. That there’s a better way to teach physics. So how satisfied are you with the adoption of the methodology that you suggest in terms of best practices? Do you feel like you've done well in that regard?
You see, I don’t look at it like that. I don’t look at it so much as a personal accomplishment or something... I just don’t.
But you can take yourself out of it, and you could say, you know, “Anonymous author X wrote such and such a paper.” How well, how much has the methodology or the prescriptions—how well have they been adopted?
In graduate or undergraduate physics education, how broadly do you think your research and results have been adopted into the mainstream?
That’s a hard one to answer, although I try to go into in my book... I think it has made a difference, but—it happened to be me, but it could have been somebody else, because these ideas are not—how shall I put it?—they're not unique... I mean, I hate to start out like this, but a lot of—I'm not talking about physics now—talking about philosophy in general—a lot of it goes back very far. And shall I say, oh, I'm up there, right there with Socrates? And is what I [laugh] contributed that important? I don’t even attempt!
I think then for my final question, it’s a forward-looking question, what work remains to be done in the field of physics education research? And again I think if you're more comfortable depersonalizing it, if you're more comfortable taking yourself out of the equation and not making it about what else could you do or what else could you have done, and you just make it about the field of physics education research, what are some of the shortcomings in the field, or what are some things that really need to be continued or developed in the future so that the things that you hope to see actually materialize?
That’s a very broad question that you want to have specific examples for.
What are ongoing problems in physics education research that you have identified but have not really been addressed or implemented?
I can’t give a quick response in a few well-chosen subjects and predicates, to that.
So you don’t see any lacunae or gaps in the field that still need improvement?
Of course there are…
Well, let me try to flip it, then. What are you most satisfied with that you have accomplished? Where has the field changed where you can specifically see the things that you've worked for, the things that you've advocated, that are present, that have been applied, and you can draw a straight line between your research or the broader field of physics education that are really part of the curriculum of physics education as a result?
Well, the problem there is that the question you're asking has various levels. And one level is pretty superficial. I mean—that this, this, and this certain way of teaching this material usually has this effect, and it’s a good effect, or whatever. Other things have to do with reaching beyond what is it that you've learned doing physics in this way that could carry over into—I hate to say real life, but I'll say it—real life. [laugh] You know what I'm trying to say? And education goes beyond physics, but it should include physics, which it often doesn't. Which it mostly doesn't. How about you? I shouldn’t turn it around [indistinct] did you major in physics at any part of it?
I did not. History of science. History of science.
Did you take any science courses at all?
Oh gosh. In undergraduate, I took like, you know, the physics course for non-majors. So that would have been Paul Hewitt’s textbook, Conceptual Physics.
History of Science, OK. Well, I'm interested in that too. But I'm not making a statement of contributing to it. [laugh]
Lillian, you're very careful in your responses.
[laugh] I am? I don’t think of it that way.
I think you're very good at not being willing to offer conjecture when the data might not support it in a perfect way. And yet the kinds of questions that I'm asking are by definition subjective. That you're free to have—in fact, I'm encouraging you to express your own opinion, which by definition need not accord perfectly with any particular data set.
Well, thank you.
I think she gets uncomfortable.
[laugh] But again, the idea is you can just—it’s perfectly acceptable in history—we're out of the science realm now. We're in the history realm right now. When a biographer comes along and wants to write a biography of you or a larger study of physics in education for which obviously your career and work would be a major component of that, I think that even if you're not statistically comfortable answering questions about the extent to which you're satisfied or dissatisfied with the way your work has been adopted, you can still have an opinion on the matter.
Yeah, but I haven't thought of it that way. Not at all.
And I get the feeling that even if I said, “Well, let’s get back on this in a week and you could think about it then” I'm not so sure that you'd have much different answers than what you're giving now.
That’s very perspicacious of you.
Yeah. She’s—it’s the caution of skepticism in its best form.
And I think this really emphasizes the fact that a foundational theme of your memoir and just listening to you is that you are a hard-nosed scientist, and that you won’t really deviate so much from the data if you don’t have a good reason to.
Well, it’s kind of difficult to have a good reason for some of the things and some of the opinions.
Well, fair enough.
Fair enough. [laugh] Listen—I mean, what I do is I talk to physicists professionally, right? And so the important thing there to recognize is that physicists are people, and they're as diverse as anybody else is. And some physicists want to talk about this, that, and the other thing, and others are quite terse and they want to keep it bounded by the hard science. And it’s a good lesson in remembering that science is a fundamentally human endeavor made up by people and their own personalities and quirks. Well, Lillian, I want to bring this interview to an official close. I want to thank you so much for spending time with me today. I am absolutely thrilled that we were able to connect and I'm so glad that this happened. So thank you very much.