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Credit: Rutgers University
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Interview of Eugenia Etkina by David Zierler on June 16, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Interview with Eugenia Etkina, Distinguished Professor of Science Education in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. She laments the absence of pedagogical considerations in the approach most physicists take to teaching in their area of expertise, and she describes the opportunities to work with physicists to improve their teaching skills. Etkina talks about appreciating the culture of physics as an instrumental part of teaching the next generation to ensure advancement in discovery. She recounts her upbringing in Moscow where her father was a physicist and the social and educational constraints she experienced as a Jewish person. Etkina describes her education at Moscow State Pedagogical University and her interest in teaching physics, which she pursued at a prestigious high school in Moscow. She explains the origins of Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE) and the benefits that Glasnost and Perestroika had on teachers in Russia. Etkina describes her dissertation research, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the opportunities that allowed for her emigration to the United States to join the faculty at Rutgers. She describes the adoption of the ISLE approach all over the world and she reflects on the role of science education in combatting science skepticism. At the end of the interview, Etkina reflects on the most important feedback mechanism to determine how to improve pedagogical approaches, and she shares her hope for ISLE to be adopted in every physics classroom.
OK, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is June 16th, 2021. I am delighted to be here with Professor Eugenia Etkina. Eugenia, it’s great to see you. Thank you for joining me today.
Well, thank you for inviting me and for choosing me. It’s a huge honor.
Eugenia, to start, would you please tell me your current title and institutional affiliation?
Well, I am a Distinguished Professor of Science Education at Rutgers University, Graduate School of Education.
Now, do you have an affiliation in the Physics and Astronomy Department as well?
Yes. I am on the graduate faculty; I can lead dissertations.
Does that include teaching courses in the department, taking on graduate students, or it’s more of a courtesy appointment?
No, it’s taking on graduate students. I lead dissertations, but I don’t teach for them. I have enough of a workload in my department.
Yeah. Tell me about the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers more broadly.
Well, it’s not a big school comparatively. And as Rutgers is a research university, it focuses on research a lot, but also on teacher preparation. It has three departments and I am in the Department of Learning and Teaching and I think it’s the only Department of Learning and Teaching in the U.S. because everything is called Teaching and Learning or Curriculum and Instruction. I am very proud to say that I am in the department that says learning comes before teaching. We also have an Educational Psychology department and we have the Department of Educational Policy and Administration. Theory, Policy, and Administration.
Now, the graduate students who come to you, what kinds of careers do they go on to pursue?
Well, when you say ‘you,’ do you mean me personally?
I do. You, personally.
Me, personally. Yes. I work with two types of students. The master’s students, who are going to be physics teachers. And they come to me in two forms: one is when they’re undergraduates in the Physics Department or in our School of Engineering. Sometimes they are chemistry majors, but mostly physics and engineering students who want to become physics teachers. They go through the application process in their junior year and when they are seniors, they continue working on their undergraduate degrees, but they also start taking courses with me and other courses in the Graduate School of Education. The 5-year program is kind of universal, it’s just structured differently for different subjects.
And my students also start teaching as teaching assistants in our courses in the Physics Department—algebra-based physics courses and some teaching the calculus-based courses—that are reformed according to the best practices in helping students to learn physics. So, they start teaching there from the beginning. They’re still seniors and they’re already teaching with full responsibilities.
And then they get their undergraduate degree and officially become master’s students in the School of Education for one more year. And they continue taking courses in how to teach physics. We have six courses on how to teach physics—really an unprecedented number—and they continue teaching. They do a full-time teaching internship in the schools and then they come back from it in the second semester of their second year and they continue teaching in this Rutgers courses and they team up with a first-year cohort and they form a community together. But you don’t need to be a Rutgers student to join our master’s program in physics teacher preparation, you can come as a post-baccalaureate student—we call them post-baccs.
Let’s say you are an engineer, right? You graduated as an engineer and you went and you worked in some business or a firm and then you decided you want to be a teacher. So, you come to us. And then you spend the same 2 years taking the same courses, but all courses are taken by you as a graduate student. This 5-year program is just a way to save a little bit of money and shorten the total time because you get a master’s in 5 years and post-baccs get master’s in 6 years, pending that they graduated with an undergraduate degree in 4 years.
So, this is the first group of students who—well, actually, I have three groups who I work with. The second group is teachers who are teaching physics or chemistry. Sometimes they’re middle school science teachers, but that is rare. And so, they’re certified to teach and they’re teaching in New Jersey, but they don’t have a master's degree. Then they come into a very similar program, it’s the same courses in how to teach physics. They take slightly different psychology courses or technology courses, but the physics method courses are the same and they do not do student teaching in the schools. They do not teach in our Rutgers physics courses because they are fully employed in their school district.
And many school districts actually pay for their graduate course work. So, they become these master’s students and sometimes they take 2 years, sometimes they take 5 years because they only take one course per semester. So, this is the second group. And the third group are the PhD students. Recently, I started only taking those who have at least 5 years of teaching experience in K-12. So, they work on their PhDs in physics education and they graduate with a PhD and an opportunity to become a professor like me, or continue being high school teachers.
My best student in this program decided that she wants to stay as a high school physics teacher—Danielle Bugge—and she’s still teaching with a PhD. And some went to work at different places, but as I said, some chose to stay teachers. And I also have PhD students in the Physics Department doing PhD and physics in PER, in physics education research.
Eugenia, just to get an overall sense of your approach, on any given day, are you relying more on your expertise in physics or more on your expertise in pedagogy or do you reject the premise of the question because it’s all mixed up for you?
No, I won’t reject the question. I just think it’s both. And I think that the longer I work, the more I value my knowledge of physics because the more sophisticated the tools are for helping students learn physics, the more exciting the activities become and the more deep my physics knowledge should be. But it’s not just the knowledge what people think of physics usually—laws and equations and concepts—it’s the knowledge of the process of physics—how physicists do it—that is also important.
And the pedagogy thing, it’s just so naturally integrated into what I do and I read a lot about different things and how the brain works and how people construct their ideas and how language helps or impedes your learning. So, it’s all kind of blended together. When people say, “Are you a physicist in educational research?” In a way, but it’s not. My background is not good in, let’s say, sophisticated educational statistics. I rely on my graduate students to do good statistical analysis. I am more about a philosophical approach to what do we want? How do we want people to feel about physics?
If we can pull on that a little further and isolate just the physicist aspect of your expertise, as you well know, different subject areas in physics have their own approaches to physics education, and so the way a condensed matter experimentalist—they might be informed about physics and teach a class in a very different way from a theoretical astrophysicist. So, I wonder what kind of physics education you have the most specialization in and if that influences the way you approach pedagogy in physics?
I wonder where you got this idea that condensed matter experimentalists would have a different approach to education from particle theorists or something like—where did this idea come from? If I may ask you.
Just in the way that when I talk to people and I hear about the way that they approach teaching classes. I’m not relying on any data or on any official research. It’s just different sensibilities in different parts of physics in the way that spills over into teaching styles.
Yeah. Well, I think—I’ll be really controversial here. OK, let them hate me. You know, the truth is that condensed matter experimentalist—or nuclear theorists— whoever they are, it doesn’t matter how brilliant they are in their fields, they are not experts in how people learn.
And so, when they talk about education, they talk about their personal education—how they learned—and they project this learning onto the rest of their students. And then unfortunately, very little of their personal practice as physicists spills over, unless they’re teaching some graduate course in exactly what they do. The general physics courses are usually independent of—the content and the process are independent of their physics expertise. And while many of them are very dedicated people and care a lot about the students and want to do the best for the students, our system—and it’s not just the American system, I was educated in Soviet Union and now I am watching closely education of physics students in Slovenia—there is no perception or this perception is still very weak that helping people learn is very different from knowing yourself.
If you know something, it doesn’t mean you know how to help others learn it. But this perception is so strong that university faculty are not required to take any courses in how people learn. They get their PhD in some field of physics and then they go and teach general physics or thermodynamics or quantum or whatever is there. And at the same time, physics teachers or chemistry teachers or biology teachers in K-12 need to take all these courses about how people learn and how to engage them and how to motivate them. All my life, I’m trying to move this idea forward that doing physics and helping people learn physics are different activities. And you need to be an expert in both.
And in many universities now, there are short courses for teaching assistants, for graduate students where they learn a little bit about pedagogy, but this is not systematic education. They’re not reading original books about the brain structure and how people learn and all these other steps. A few papers that can fit into the graduate course, usually one credit or maybe two credits at best. So, your question is a very loaded question.
Being familiar with the findings of science education research, cognitive signs, brain studies, and most importantly, physics education research and working with people in this field closely and doing research myself, all these things, they shape how I approach my own classes, the design of materials, writing textbooks, making activities. All this is informed by a lot of knowledge and experience. And I think that helping people learn physics is a very special activity that requires special training. And notice, I never said teaching physics because teaching—we all teach physics, right? It’s just that people don’t learn much.
Teaching is an activity very different from helping people learn, and I am talking about helping people learn. So, I approach this process as helping my students learn and helping other students learn, not teaching.
Given the problems that you see, what opportunities do you have to work with professors to make them better teachers?
Well, I do have opportunities. Right now, for example, I’m working with a whole physics department at Syracuse University who decided that they want to reform their introductory courses and then eventually move to reforming their more advanced courses. I give a talk first, then we have a workshop, and then they start engaging into deciding how they’re going to do it and I meet with them, like we’re meeting once a week today for an hour—and we meet every week and slowly, they design their own lessons and labs using the materials that we produced. Another model is that I train people who lead the courses, the course coordinators, lab coordinators, and then they go and work with the rest of the group. That’s also a model.
I have a Facebook group that is called Exploring and Applying Physics. It has over 900 members and we post there every day and I try to post one thing about helping people learn physics every day. When the pandemic started, we took our materials that we created for teaching online and posted there for free, so anyone who is a member of the group—and the only condition to be admitted is to answer the question why do you want to be a member of this group can use the materials. And people take these materials and download them and use them with their students and then they post questions.
We also have regular—the last 20 years, every year, we have a workshop “Learning Physics by Practicing Science: Introduction to the Investigative Science Learning Environment” at the AAPT and all these years it has been over-subscribed. People come and it’s an 8-hour workshop and we train them how to use our materials and then they go and some use (some don’t). Some ask questions, some don’t. It’s a tricky thing to do and I don’t know if you know, but in the recent times, there emerged a new type of a faculty member. They’re sometimes called teaching professors or professors of practice. These are the people who don’t have tenure, they’re not tenure track lines, but they have ranks of an assistant professor or associate professor, full professor, and their main responsibility is teaching.
These people are mostly the ones who are reforming the courses because tenure track faculty do not have time for this work—the reward system is such that you can’t really invest too much time in this stuff. And that’s why our biggest success is working with teaching professors, not tenure track faculty. But my work now with the Syracuse University is with a mix of teaching professors and tenure track faculty.
Do you see the partnership with Syracuse as part of a broader trend where physics departments as a whole are embracing a need for change in education?
Yes. I definitely do. Rutgers has multiple campuses, I would say. I’m at New Brunswick—it’s called main campus. And then there’s a Newark campus and Camden campus and they have their separate physics departments and these departments—I can’t say for sure, but in my experience, they communicate very little. I’ve been working with the Newark Physics Department helping them reform their courses and they are very committed to change. And then I was working with a few universities in Florida. Yes, I think it is a growing trend and people recognize that we just cannot continue as we did before, for many reasons.
And why not? What exactly is the problem that suggests we cannot continue?
Well, multiple things. First, we have evidence that what we have been doing for years doesn’t work. Not we, but our traditional approach to teaching physics or biology or chemistry or engineering, there’s—the number of studies is overwhelming is that passive learning does not exist. You either engage people in active learning and they learn something, or you lecture to them and they learn virtually nothing, very little. But what happens is that how do we explain it? How come all these physics professors and chemistry professors and math professors, how come they learned? Because they were active learners in spite of the system.
So, those survive who can do this active learning with all the components. I know I did it when I was a student and that’s why I was a good student, but a lot of people can’t because not everybody comes with the same level of preparation and knowing how to study and having a community of people to study, which is very important. There are so many reasons why very few people learn anything from traditional instruction, only those who manage to turn it into active learning themselves.
This is one thing that we know that traditional instruction doesn’t work, right? Second, we have a lot of things that do work, we have multiple approaches to engage students in active learning, they focus on different aspects of the content and the process. In physics, we have, I would say, probably 20 fundamentally different approaches to active learning, but they all have the same foundation that students work together in groups and share ideas and argue and discuss, and that’s what helps them learn and all this is based on what we know about how people learn in general. Our knowledge of how the brain functions and how knowledge is constructed is so much more advanced than it was before that we can say why something did not work and why something should work and how to improve it and then we know how to collect the data and how to analyze the data to find out whether something works or not, even in this very complex field of education because learning is a social process and social systems are very complex.
If you read articles about education in 60s and 70s, people argued that we cannot use scientific methods to study how people learn because of the complexity. Doing physics research is much easier than doing educational research because you can control variables. And in education, you can’t. But now, we know how to design the studies to account for different variables. I’m not saying they’re perfect, but they produce repeated results. Even in the last 20 years, we know so much more about how people learn and what works and what doesn’t.
I said three things, right? But there’s another thing is that if you think about what we needed to learn to be successful in the 19th century, right? That was the century of agriculture, so most people were engaged in agriculture. So, you needed to know a lot about putting seeds in and when and how and how to plow and stuff, but the 20th century was the century of manufacturing. The majority of people were engaged in the activities that required very prescribed procedures, and so once you got educated in high school or even college, you would go and do stuff—for a big chunk of your life, you were prepared, right? Education was a stage in your life and then there was work. But now, there’s no separation. You have to be continually educated. If you don’t know some facts, you can always Google it instantly.
The nature of education changed and that’s why when people share information—and traditional instruction is sharing information because you cannot share any mental processes, this is what a person needs to do themselves, right? So, sharing information becomes kind of unnecessary. And so, just the idea that we live in a completely different universe with the world expecting people to be very different—creativity, problem-solving, and working together, this is what is important. Of course, the factual knowledge is also important - if you don’t know some fundamental things in your discipline, it will take you forever to solve a simple problem, but it’s not enough anymore.
How do we get people to be more creative than robots, right? More creative than algorithms? You cannot make a creative person by lecturing to them. They need to engage in the creative process. That’s why I would say this is number one. If we want to survive and have jobs that are not replaced by robots and algorithms, then we have to change education and I think that people understand it. And luckily, over the years, I’ve been working in a system that does just this, engages people in the creative process from the first day of class.
Eugenia, I wonder how you might connect or not the role of pedagogy in helping to overcome some of the major mysteries or existential challenges in physics? In other words, when we hear about what’s it going to take to understand the dark matter or dark energy or what the Standard Model—what does physics look like beyond the Standard Model or will we ever see super symmetry? Everybody talks about the lack of observations or experimental abilities to get there or the lack of theoretical brilliance that will put it all together, but nobody talks about the way that physics is taught and how that may or may not make a difference. I wonder if you connect pedagogy to those really big questions in physics?
That’s a good question. You know, physics culture is very special. On one hand, you have to make mistakes in order to achieve anything, right? On the other hand, the image is that physicists are brilliant and that’s why a lot of students, a lot of physics students, are afraid of looking not so smart and making mistakes and we reward people for the right answers. That’s how—for the right solution for the right answer, not for making a mistake and recognizing it. If we could create this what’s called mistake rich environment when people learn physics, there will be less fear.
But another thing is that physics is a collaborative enterprise, right? You see all these groups that work together. On the paper written by particle physicists, you will have 800 names, but that’s not how traditional education works. In traditional education you are responsible for your own exam and you only have one chance to submit it. All the years of education do not prepare people for the real work of physics and I wonder how many of those people who are brilliant and talented are excluded from moving forward because of the nature of physics learning that rewards brilliance, punishes for mistakes, does not allow for improvement of your work if you need more time to learn and if you have a different background.
And that’s why we have very few women, we have very few people of color, and I’m wondering if the nature of learning physics was different, if everybody felt welcome, then this diversity of views would push the field much faster forward. And this is absolutely true historically. I don’t know if you know the name of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin?
She is an example of how not being recognized as a valuable member of the community leads to the slowing down of the process. If people listened to her when she was a graduate student, then we would understand the nature of stars much earlier than we did. The chemical composition, you know, she was the one who analyzed the spectrum and said the Sun is mostly made of hydrogen and a little bit of helium and at that time, people thought that the Sun is made of the same elements as Earth and they made her put in her dissertation, you know, the data shows it but it’s almost certainly wrong. And that was only because she was a woman.
The lack of diversity is because we create these perceptions and conditions in learning physics, I think, slows it down. And the fear of being wrong in a way. That all contributes to the lack of diversity. I don’t know. I never thought about it, how physics education could solve the problem of dark matter, but now that you ask—
Well, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to be the next generation and they need to be educated properly. That seems to me a fairly non-controversial observation.
Right. And what does it mean properly? Properly means that you feel like you’re part of a community and you can make mistakes. And you work with other people. And if you think about it, our traditional education does not reward any of that. Even worse, if you think about grading on a curve, that it discourages you from collaboration because if everybody does well, everybody gets a C, right? So, almost everything that we do in our traditional education goes against what we know how people learn.
That’s interesting. And the challenge.
And the challenge, yes. And when you strive to break, you know, for example when I started teaching almost 40 years ago, I told my students that they can improve any piece of work. Any quiz, any lab report, any test. Here’s the time when you can come and do it again, I’ll give you different problems, I will be there. And all the teachers in my school, they said, “You’re crazy. They will abuse it. They will never try on the first try. We cannot afford it, we have so many students. How is it possible?”
In my 40 years of teaching—39, almost 40—nobody ever abused it. But the students immediately recognized that I wanted them to learn, not to get a grade. And now, 39 years later, I keep telling people that they should give their students an opportunity to improve their work without punishment. What does it mean without punishment?—it’s not like they’re beating them up, but traditionally, you can resubmit something, but then you can only get 50 percent. You cannot get 100 because of the second try, right? But when you resubmit a grant, you still get the same amount you asked for, right? Your paper is published after 300 revisions the same way like you wrote it. You’re not getting half of the publication.
But in learning, for some reason, if you did it on the second try, it’s somehow less valuable than when you did it on the first try. So, brilliance—not brilliance—the speed is rewarded, right? If you learn quickly, you’re good. If you learn slower, you’re not that good. But the best thoughts come after very long, long thinking, right? And this is just one of the examples of how difficult it is.
I’ve been teaching for so many years, and yet something that I did so many years ago now, people are like, “Whoa.” And there’s several school districts in New Jersey for example that do not allow their students to resubmit their work. When I prepare physics teachers, we talk about how to choose a job in the school to work. I said, “This is number one question that you need to ask. And if you cannot allow your students to resubmit their work and get full points, don’t go to this school.”
Eugenia, on the question of diversity and the importance of recognizing different perspectives and how that informs how physics is learned, is being at Rutgers—a large public university that has a diverse student body—is that specifically important and relevant for your work?
Yes. Of course. Rutgers is actually a very unique place with a very, very diverse population and, of course, we think about how to approach learning for people who are the first generation students or who are not fluent in English, but most importantly, people who come from poor neighborhoods where they might be the best students, but their level of preparation is not as high as it needs to be. Rutgers has a ton of programs and specific courses and everything to help the students. When I came to Rutgers, I was actually hired to run one of those courses. It was called Extended General Physics in the physics department for students who came from Newark and Camden and they wanted to go to medical schools, but their level of preparation was not enough to pass a regular physics course.
This extended course with more meetings, more structured work, very active learning was invented. We had a parallel course for engineering students. My friend, Professor Suzanne Brahmia, ran it. Rutgers is a pioneer in this way in the physics department creating courses that will help all students eventually become what they want to become. And my graduate school of education (GSE) is also kind of a pioneer. We have now this very, very strong focus on diversity and inclusion and social justice. The teacher preparation program in the whole GSE—not just physics—but all programs form one GSE teacher preparation program in terms of accreditation, for example, right? Some people prepare math teachers, some people prepare English teachers, but we all have this one umbrella of this school education. And it is the program for social justice.
We are focused on preparing people who will teach in urban school districts, who know how to do it, who do the student teaching in urban school districts. And I think it’s very, very important in New Jersey and in all states that are as diverse as New Jersey.
Eugenia, we’ve talked so much about current issues, let’s engage in some history now. Let’s go back in time and start first with your parents. Tell me about them and where they’re from.
Well, my parents—I grew up in Moscow and my father was a physicist and a professor. And my mom, at first, was a math teacher in—back in the Soviet Union, there was no division between elementary, middle, and high school. So, she would teach math to students from 4th to 10th grade. We had 10 years of education. She taught all of the math and from very simple 4th grade ‘til calculus, we had very advanced calculus in 10th grade.
What’s important is that I grew up in Moscow, Russia, the Russian Federation at that time, and I spoke the Russian language, but in my passport, in my birth certificate, in my parents’ birth certificate, it’s not written that I’m Russian. I was written as Jewish. And that designation came from 1918 when people were getting their first passports and their nationality—which is kind of ethnicity—was recorded based on the religion. And although both my parents were members of the Communist Party and all my grandparents were members of the Communist Party, nobody was religious. We were all Jews.
And being a Jew—even in my lifetime—but in my parents’ lifetime, before Stalin’s death, was very difficult. And so, my father, he wanted to be a physicist and an engineer and although he graduated from high school with a gold medal, which means like all As, he was not accepted to the institute that prepared pure physicists because he was Jewish. Of course, they didn’t accept him because he was Jewish, they said his health is not good enough, but that was not the reason. So, he ended up studying physics in the Moscow Pedagogical Institute where he met my mom.
They were both dual-certified teachers. My father was physics and math and my mom was math and physics and luckily, they graduated in 1954 when Stalin died, so my father could go to grad school right away. He went to grad school and he got his PhD. In the Soviet Union, there is a system of two PhDs. The first one is equivalent to our PhD, like the first level, and the second level is you have to open your own field of knowledge, basically. It is a much higher level. It doesn’t exist anywhere else.
My father went to grad school and became a researcher and started teaching in Moscow State Pedagogical University as a professor. And my mom went and became a math teacher and although she was just a teacher and my father was a big-time professor, she always thought that mathematicians are mentally more superior to physicists. And when I would make a mistake in something, she would say, “Well, that’s because you’re a physicist. If you were a mathematician, you would know what to do.”
Then later—after teaching for 20 years as a math teacher—she went to grad school at night without stopping full-time work as a math teacher and got her PhD in math education. And after 30 years of teaching in middle school, high school, she became a professor at the university that prepared math teachers.
I was growing up in this family of my mom constantly with her students, hiking, doing stuff, preparing her lessons all the time, and my dad, with his PhD students who would come to our apartment in Moscow. On Saturday and Sunday non-stop, he would have one scheduled and then the next hour the next one and he had over 100 PhD students whose dissertations he directed. He was an amazing man.
So I’m growing up in all this and I was a good student, but I was an ice skater. I did ballet on ice. And I was always referred as oh, “This is Eugenia, she’s our ice skater,” because the mental person, the person who was doing intellectual work in our family was my sister. She was 6 years older and she wanted to be a math teacher and she was absolutely brilliant in math, but unfortunately, she was born with a very difficult heart disease that they couldn’t fix. And even now, this defect cannot be fixed. And people with this defect do not have enough oxygen in their blood and that leads to difficulties in breathing, you cannot do any physical activity, your lips are blue, your nails are black, and you look different from other people. And the medical history showed that nobody with this defect lived past 21.
She wanted to be a math teacher and she was about to graduate from the university preparing math teachers and she already had an offer in the nearest school where she volunteered for 7 years before working with the students and everybody knew her and loved her. And she died in March before her graduation in May. I was 15 years old. And she was my best friend. She was my everything. And, of course, we didn’t have any grief counselling or anything, you know?
I was thinking, you know, what can I do to somehow replace her in this world? She wanted to be a math teacher, so, I thought I would become a physics teacher because I didn’t like math much, but I loved what my dad did. But because I observed my mom being this amazing teacher all my life, I kind of knew what teaching is like and I liked physics, so, becoming a physics teacher was my decision. That’s what it was. It’s not so much my parents, but my sister who determined who I became.
Although if I didn’t watch my dad, I would not know what a professor’s life is like and if I didn’t watch my mom, I wouldn’t know what a teacher’s life is like because my mom did not teach math. She really taught whole people in the most amazing way. And even when she was 75 years old, every year, she would meet every year with her students once a year from the class that graduated 40 years ago.
Eugenia, what opportunities did you have in your family to express any interest in Jewish cultural or religious practices or none at all?
You know, it was more of a culture and protection. There was no religion at all. We are all—I had no idea about any religious holidays or anything related to religion until I came here, but there were certain things that were very important. First was education and I knew about being Jewish and anti-Semitism and different opportunities that Jews had. You know, on paper, we were all equal, but as we used to say in the Soviet Union, “We’re all equal but some people are more equal than others.”
Jews were the least equal and there were certain fields that were completely closed for them. And that’s why in my Pedagogical University, we had a lot of people who wanted to be physicists, but they could not go to Moscow State University, so they all went through the Pedagogical University because teaching—being a teacher, of course you could do it. We were not paid much and it wasn’t prestigious, so Jews were welcome to do it. But Moscow State University Physics Department was completely closed for that.
I knew very well that I am different. And being called names on the street for the shape of your nose is—when you’re a child—is very traumatizing and that’s what happened to me.
And so, your educational opportunities were constrained as well, just like your parents’?
Absolutely. Yes. My parents were much more constrained because they were getting the education before Stalin died right in the midst of this huge anti-Semitic wave that was physical, basically, but in my life, oh yeah. In Brezhnev’s time, we had an unofficial 3 percent norm, the same as in tzarist Russia that you cannot have more than 3 percent of whoever is hired or being Jewish. And then as I said, certain fields were completely closed.
So, that I knew. And also, my parents encouraged me to read history and books that talked about Jewish history and one of them was this German writer, Lion Feuchtwanger, he’s not very known in U.S., but this is the guy who wrote—it was fiction, but it was historically-based fiction about the history of Jews through Roman times and pre-Jesus up to Hitlerism. And I read every single book written by him, and then there’s, of course, Henry Boll, who wrote books about it.
There was a lot of cultural stuff that I was encouraged to read and I was a big reader, but there was absolutely zero—literally zero—religious education. The only thing I knew about religion was that for some holiday—I didn’t know the name of the holiday—there was this matzo thing. My grandmother, she had a woman who would go to the synagogue and buy this matzo and bring it to my grandmother because my grandmother was married to a very big engineer, a member of the Communist Party. She could not be seen going to a synagogue, so that’s why she hired a person to go. And we would eat this matzo, and I didn’t like it much, but that was my only exposure to anything related to religion and holidays.
Tell me about the curriculum at Moscow State Pedagogical University. What was the rough balance between classes that were focused more on just the science and classes that were focused more on the education?
Well, I would say there were three directions. First, there was no other science but physics. It was the physics department of the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute. And at that time, it wasn’t Moscow Pedagogical Institute, it was named after Lenin and then later it became Moscow State Pedagogical University. It was the number one institution in preparing teachers and each department had its own building.
And so, we were in the physics department building that was actually architecturally absolutely amazing. It was the building built for the first female university for teachers in Russia in the 1800s. That was the first place where women could be educated to become teachers. And we had three types of courses for the physics courses starting with general physics up to very, very advanced. And I even wrote a paper to “The Physics Teacher” about how Russian teachers are prepared.
My level of physics preparation was equivalent to a master’s degree in physics here, and that includes the math courses too. Math and physics that were required to get a master’s degree in physics. And we also had a lot of pedagogy that was like general, psychology courses and it was called General Didactics. They were not too big, I think only three, but the majority of courses was called the Methodology of Teaching Physics. So systematically, we learned about the curriculum, every single piece of equipment that is used in school, every single experiment, all the problems that we could offer our students, and it was an amazing preparation in a way that I knew where to find things and how things worked. I was familiar with all available equipment that I would ever need in my school.
But we also had a whole year of full-time student teaching. We had 5 years of education and we went to school 6 days a week. So, like my students, in the 5-year program, they go to school 5 days a week. We went 6 days a week and the school year would start on the 1st of September and end on the 30th of May and then all June would be exams. My students, if they don’t take summer courses, our semester ends at the beginning of May and then 1 week of exams.
The amount of time that we spend studying was probably equivalent to 6 or 7 years of studying here, and that’s why we could have this two full semesters of being in the schools and doing student teaching. I would say physics probably took 60 percent of this time, like, pure physics. No biology, no chemistry, just physics. And pedagogy and methodology probably took another 20-25 percent. And then it was about 15 percent that would be philosophy and the history of the Communist Party and medical preparation. I’m actually a military nurse. For 2 years, once a week, we had 6 hours of military training. I was a registered military nurse when I graduated.
Did you think you might be going to Afghanistan, by any chance?
No. I don’t think so. I think it was more—but if we had a real war, you know, not this small one, yeah. I would be drafted. We would all be drafted immediately. Yes.
As an undergraduate, did you ever think about pursuing a more traditional education path in physics itself? Was that option available to you?
Yes. It was actually available. My father wanted me to do it very much. He wanted me to be a physicist and he would say, “You have these super good grades, why don’t you go to grad school and do physics?” Because in our Moscow State Pedagogical University, there was an opportunity to do a PhD in physics, in straight physics. We had very strong experimental physics, theoretical physics, radio physics departments because all these people who could not go to Moscow State University—there was a lot of Jewish professors there—they all clustered there. The level of physics was superb. And I said, “No. I want to be a teacher.” And so, my dad actually died before I got my PhD. He never knew that I became a professor. He wanted me to.
What was your understanding, as an undergraduate, of the level of prestige of being a schoolteacher in Russia? In other words, if in the United States that being a high school teacher might not appear to be as prestigious as being a university professor. Whether that’s right or wrong, I’m not going to engage on that, but was that not the case in Russia or there was that hierarchy there?
No. That was—of course. But professors were not very highly positioned either because that was the country of workers and peasants and operatives of the Communist Party, so in terms of prestige and access to services and goods, professors were not much above high school teachers. People would respect you, but materially, financially, you would not be much better off. But what is interesting, though, that being a physics teacher would give you a much higher prestige the same as here.
When people ask me, “What do you do?” and I say, “I teach physics,” they respect me instantly. They say, “Oh, you must be smart. I didn’t do well in physics or I hated it.” And this is universal, not just me. Any person who does physics had those responses. And on one hand, it could be, “Oh, that’s great. People respect me because they think that I’m so smart that I’m doing physics,” but in fact, it’s very sad because that’s the result of how we teach it. Because physics is not for smart people, physics is for everybody. There’s nobody in the world who cannot learn physics, we just make it this way that only very few can.
But I never worried about the prestige or anything because I saw my mom being a really good teacher and the infinite respect that she had from my dad, who was a physics professor. So, I didn’t worry about it, but I knew that people would think that I’m smart because I teach physics.
What opportunities were available to you after you graduated?
Well, I wanted to be a teacher. So, I just went and became a teacher. I got hired in one of the best Moscow schools, luckily, and that’s the only place where I was. I could have gone to grad school. I could have gone to any research place doing programming and stuff as many of my friends did. Very small percent of us actually went into teaching. People had all kinds of opportunities, it’s not that they were paid or anything, but at that time in the Soviet Union, there were no jobless people. Everybody had a job. But you could also be distributed somewhere.
What were some of the key challenges in the transition from the theoretical world of physics education as a student yourself to being in the classroom and starting to actually implement the things that you had learned?
Well, I’ll tell you, in the school where I worked, there was already a physics teacher—a man, Alexander—and because the load was more than he could handle, they hired me. And I think that second year of my teaching—we had a classroom and the prep room where all the equipment was where we were practicing our experiments and stuff. It was November. He walks in and says, “Eugenia, it’s November. You haven’t cried once. Last year, you cried every 2 weeks.”
That was that because I thought if I prepared a good lesson, then everybody will be engaged and excited about it, and I spent hours and hours preparing my lessons, but it wasn’t the case. I could not engage at the beginning. My students—I could not control the classroom. It was difficult and so I cried. And then I cried some more. And then I prepared better lessons and then I cried again. It hurt. And then I learned not to take it personally, and that’s what I teach my students is number one rule, it’s not about you. But nobody taught me this rule, so I took it personally.
And once I learned that it’s not about me, it’s about their learning, then the lessons got easier and then eventually I figured out that it’s not about me at all. It’s about them. So, I basically came up with a system that is known as Investigative Science Learning Environment—though I didn’t coin the term, Suzanne Brahmia did—of how to engage students in learning physics by doing it. And once I figured that out, then I think I stopped crying completely.
Was Moscow Southwest High School known to be a prestigious school, a place that would produce famous physicists into the future?
Well, it’s not old enough to produce very famous physicists, but I know it produced famous mathematicians already and famous physicists too. And at that time, it was a new school. It was less than 10 years old when I came and now it celebrated a few years ago, its 40th anniversary. It had a brilliant principal Yuri Zavelsky, who died a couple weeks ago, who was its principal from the beginning ‘til the age of 90. For 40 years, he was the principal. And he created this amazing atmosphere of learning and culture and if I start talking about him, it will be maybe a year-long conversation, but when I started, it was a regular district school, so anyone who lived in the area would go. But then eventually it became a specialized school, it’s called a gymnasium. Not like a gym, but in a Greek meaning. And we had specializations in mathematics, biology, physics and chemistry, and humanities.
There would be entrance exams and the students would have extra work and all kinds of activities and now it’s one of the—at that time when I was there and I left in 1995, a long time ago—but even at that time it was famous all around Moscow, but now it’s one of the best schools in Russia. I was very lucky because if it were not for my principal, I would have never come up with the thing that is ISLE (Investigative Science Learning Environment) now. It was his question—because all students in Russia had to take 5 years of physics at that time, and so he comes into my room and says, “What do you think your students should learn in your classes? They’re not going to be physicists. You might get one, two physics majors out of 100 every year. What should they learn?”
And I was like that’s a good question. What should they learn? And I started thinking and I thought they should learn how to think like physicists. They will forget the laws and equations, but they will not forget how to approach the world as a physicist. And so, that’s what I taught them. And then 20 years later on Facebook I would get a message from one of my former students, “You know, Eugenia, I was doing this and that and I realized how much I am using what I learned in physics.”
Did Glasnost and Perestroika open up opportunities to you that might not have been available previously?
Absolutely. When we had Glasnost and Perestroika, the life of a teacher became a dream. It was complete freedom. I had my own curriculum that I wrote—because when I started, it was the state curriculum. I was supposed to do a certain thing on a certain day. Everybody—if you go to a physics lesson in Saint Petersburg or Moscow, you should see the same thing. And if you didn’t do it, then you’d be punished. But then when all this Perestroika started, it was literally complete freedom because there was no state curriculum anymore. I could choose what to do, how much time to spend, what twist to have, what problems to give my students, what experiments, and the teachers started to be paid for the quality of teaching. It was amazing.
We had a committee of other teachers and the principal. We had the rules for certain levels and it didn’t matter that you worked for 10 years or 30 years if you designed your own classes, if the students did well, if the students valued you and the parents valued you—there were a lot of criteria—if you published papers, your pay would be higher than the pay of a person who has been teaching for 30 years, which is unheard of because here, it’s only the number of years that count in a particular school district.
People started innovating. I was the vice principal for research work of teachers in my school. I oversaw research work of teachers. Can you imagine? We published a booklet every year of research and innovations done by the teachers. And everybody innovated, everybody came up with new approaches and new ways of doing stuff and engaging students in collaborative learning and all kinds of active learning. It was really an amazing time and I think I am happy that I left before the time ended.
Tell me about the end of the Cold War and how that might have affected you.
The end of the Cold War.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps it didn’t register the way that Glasnost and Perestroika did.
Well, what registered is I grew up behind the Iron Curtain, and so, you understand—you don’t understand. Nobody who did not experience it can understand what an iron curtain is. It’s you cannot travel. You cannot get out of this country. Not only that we could not travel abroad, we’re also assigned to a place to live. So, like if you lived in Saint Petersburg, you couldn’t just come and live in Moscow because your living assignment was not in Moscow. We were… it’s like a big—I don’t want to say jail, but in a way, right? And so, the biggest thing that happened is that people were allowed to travel. I left, what is it, 26 years ago, every day I think about it that it’s a different world now. People who are in Moscow can come and see me and they can travel, they can go skiing places, they can go lie on the beach. There’s no more iron curtain. That was the biggest thing. People ask us, “Were you afraid of Americans?” I don’t think we were. I think the Cold War—I don’t know, it’s very complicated what it was, so I can’t answer this question. But I can answer the question about the iron curtain. That was a huge, huge thing. The lifting of the iron curtain.
Although of course, they’re linked. The end of Cold War and the lifting of the Iron Curtain are not separate trajectories.
Yes, but that is what was the biggest thing is that we were allowed to travel. I could have a foreign passport. We had internal passports, but not foreign passports. I could have a foreign passport and we could go to where we had a visa. So, that was huge. That was very big.
When did you decide to go back and pursue the PhD?
I was actually in U.S. by then and the person who encouraged me was George Horton. He was a professor in the physics department. He’s the one who hired me to run one of the courses—this extended general physics course for which he had an NSF grant. And we just came to the U.S. My husband, at that time, got a position in physics and they asked him what his wife does and he said, “She teaches physics.” And George said, “Does she speak English?” And he said, “Yes.”
And so, George wrote to me when I was still in Moscow and asked me a few questions about my experience and hired me. Then I started working for him, improvising the course, coming up with activities and changing stuff and he was very impressed and surprised how I knew what to do. And then he said, “Eugenia, you need to get a PhD because without a PhD, you cannot move forward.” And I said, “I actually have my graduate work done back in Russia and I have my data collected, I just never had time to write it because I never saw the point.” Why do I need a PhD if I am going to be teaching in my high school and I didn’t want to do anything else? And he said, “I will give you one day off from your full-time job so you can write your dissertation and then you go to Moscow and defend it.”
I had two children and a husband with a full-time job, so I went home, and I said, “Guys, we need to talk about some things. So, here’s an opportunity that I have to write a dissertation, but that means that I cannot take you anywhere, I cannot spend weekends with you because one day is not enough to write a dissertation. I need the weekends and that day.” It was Friday, Saturday, Sunday that I was sitting by the computer writing. “And I cannot clean the house.” We didn’t have enough money to hire anybody, I was doing cooking and cleaning, “So you will need to clean and help with cooking and not complain when I’m not available. If you vote yes, I will do it. If you said, ‘No, mom, it’s more important that you drive us to karate practice and we go hiking on the weekends and go to the beach,’ then I won’t do it.” I said, “Now, you vote.”
They voted and supported it and that’s how I wrote my dissertation. And then I went and—it’s a long process in Russia. It’s more complicated than here. I had to go twice to have a pre-defense and the defense. And I defended and right after I defended, a position for an assistant professor in science education opened in the School of Education, and my friend, Suzanne Brahmia, who I talked about a lot, she said, “Apply. You’ll be faculty.” Because I had a staff position. And I said, “Why? I like what I do, I love my students, I love the course.” And she said, “Well, you don’t understand the difference between staff and tenure track.” And I didn’t.
Now, what is the timing? Are you already in the United States and that’s when you get involved in projects like Scilink and Fulbright-Hays? Or was it the other way around?
No. That was the other way around. I was in Moscow and what happened is that in 1991, right before the first coup at the beginning of August, there was a convention, the first convention of American and Russian science teachers. And the guy who was the president of NSTA, Professor Lynn Glass, he came and he opened the convention and it was crazy. You know, most Russian teachers don’t speak English, so, they listen through an interpreter, but I spoke English fluently because as a student, I went to a specialized English school and so my English was good, I maintained it.
And I was just blown away by his humor, by the way he spoke. It was so different from anything that I heard before. And then we were giving talks and I had a talk and he came to my talk and he, with his wife, came to my talk and we started talking and I invited them to our apartment and we became friends. And then he said, “Eugenia, we can do these projects,” and that was just the beginning of email times in Russia, our school just got its first computers and email access, through the phone. And so, we had this project. My students would write to kids in Ames, Iowa and then we went there and I taught physics in Ames, Iowa and lived in the house of an American teacher, Charlie Windsor and his wife Lynette, and we bonded forever. I just talked to him recently.
And my students lived in the families and they went to their classes and then Americans came and did that and it was just an amazing experience. And I was in Moscow teaching and that’s why it happened because that’s why we had this pairing. And of course, there was no internet at that time and no direct interaction—it was all through email through the modem. We would receive this email once a day, I would run to the computer classroom, I’d say, “Did you download the email?” And my kids would go and check it.
How was your English at this point?
Good enough to do all this and write papers and teach in Charlie’s classroom. So, yeah. So, what happened, it’s a little bit more complicated. In 1991, right after the coup my husband, at the time, who’s a big-time physicist—condensed matter experimentalist low temperature—he had a visiting professor position at USC. So, we went to L.A. in ’91-’92 school year and we lived in downtown L.A. during Rodney King riots and stuff. He was working and I didn’t have a job. I had a spouse visa. And so, what I did is that I asked him to bring American textbooks and I taught myself physics in English.
I studied every day because I knew English, but it wasn’t to teach physics. During that year, I taught myself physics in English and when I came back, I started teaching courses, physics and English, in my school. I created a course in stellar astrophysics in English and then I created a course in the antropic cosmological principle and kids signed up, these were, like, extra curriculum stuff. And so, I maintained the language. And then through the projects with Lynn Glass, I improved it. So, it wasn’t a problem.
Did you come to the United States knowing that this is where you were going to make a life, or it wasn’t so clear at the beginning?
In ’95 when we came, yes. I just couldn’t stand life in Russia anymore, and most importantly, my husband could not work there. As a low temperature experimentalist, he needed helium, which, at that time, there was nothing. He was dying as a physicist. And that was one major reason. Because I could have had a job, my high school teaching would not go anywhere, but he was literally dying as a scientist. And our oldest son at the time was 15 and the war with Chechnya started and we had a draft, so in 3 years he would have been drafted, and I knew the war would not end. I was thinking that we would come back. And then he got tenure, I got a job, that was it. But no, it was not clear at the beginning.
What were some of the obvious research benefits for your thesis having worked in a high school for so long?
I had my students. I could give them physics questions and they would just write, answer questions, and I would analyze them and I would have them fill out Likert scale questionnaires, so observing them and creating materials and testing them right away. It was just heaven. And then I could study how it affected them. So, it was educational bonanza, I would say.
It’s a very broad question to ask about some of the cultural differences when you got to the United States, so perhaps I’ll just restrict that to some of the cultural differences you detected in pedagogical approaches to physics education.
You know, the whole field of physics education research was like a discovery for me because we were taught to engage students in active learning. I was taught, in my preparation, that lecturing is not a way to go and we should engage students, but we were not taught to listen to the students. So, listening to the students, observing them through videos, interviewing them, was like an amazing discovery for me.
I would say that although I had very good preparation in physics and in general didactical methods of teaching, I was not very prepared in learning. And so, I kind of came up with this active learning thing on my own because of my students, but I didn’t have any systematic understanding, although I should, right? With Vigotsky, on his work, almost everything is based here. He was a Soviet psychologist, right? But we did not study him much. He was not at the forefront of my education. Piaget was.
I rediscovered Vygotsky here and of course the work of people in PER—in physics education research—that was an eye-opening thing. On one hand, how do you do it systematically like Lillian McDermott? How do you start thinking about the theory of learning like Joe Redish? And the most influential for me was the work of Alan Van Heuvelen, with whom we eventually started collaborating and wrote a textbook together. But his idea of using multiple representation systematically to connect abstract worlds to abstract mathematics was amazing.
And so, I would say that although I had excellent physics education and excellent education in methodology and we had great physics problems to give to the students, I did not learn there to listen carefully to what students are saying and doing. This power of observation and just listening to the students carefully, that came here and that changed a lot of what I do and how I see students. And then, reading books about how the brain works, and that the best one is by James Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain, that gives this foundation, the explanation of why certain things work, and certain things don’t. I always wanted my students to reflect on what they learned and how they learned, but then I’m reading the book about the brain and I understand how important it is because of the brain structure, right?
So, having this foundation—the explanation of why some things work and some things shouldn’t work. Now I know they will not work in advance. It’s like what I know now has predictive power. It’s all based on the PER and advances of brain research, but I think it’s also the time. I’m sure that if I stayed in Moscow, this research would have been done there too. It’s also the time, all the technical stuff when we can see how the brain lights up when we do this and when we do that and how we shouldn’t make predictions when we know nothing, how our predictions affect what we see. All this is based on what we see happening in the brain. And that wasn’t known then. So, it’s time, too. It’s not just the power of great PER, which is absolutely great and pioneering, but it’s also the advances of technology.
Eugenia, how did these ideas formalize into what would become Investigative Science Learning Environment, which I assume is abbreviated by ISLE?
Yes. Interesting is that the whole idea of ISLE came from me just studying the history and observing my dad and my husband, you know, how they were working and what they were doing in talking to them. But let me start it differently. When I was taking physics myself, if it were not for my dad, I would really hate it because every class was something unexpected. Today we have a quiz or today we have a lab or today we have this, and it was all these separate pieces that I was always afraid that something will happen that I’m not prepared for.
And so, what I tried to create is a very clear process. So, the students know today we’re observing. Tomorrow, we’re coming up with explanations. The day after tomorrow, we’re testing them. I would come and ask them, “What are we going to do today?” So they were safe. And also, at the beginning of each class, I would have a very short quiz. They know you come into a physics classroom, you have a very short quiz (it is like a routine). You can always improve your grade, but it’s needed so Eugenia knows where you are, right?
I created these routines and these routines removed the fear. I hope they did, right? From my students of what is going to happen in the physics class. But then these routines crystallized in the process based on how physics works, right? I created these routines, but something was missing and the missing part were the mental tools. When you’re observing and you want to analyze your observations and explain them, you need some mental tools to do it, and that’s where Alan Van Heuvelen’s work came into play, you know, the representations, how to analyze the data and how to build models.
That’s how it all came together is my desire to have physics predictable and logical and have the tools for students to succeed. And what’s interesting is that once you start doing it—so, we observe something, right? You’re wearing this gray shirt, right? And probably gray pants. That’s my observation. I can’t see your pants, but let’s say they’re gray. How do I explain it? Well, one is that you like gray color. The second is that that’s the only clothes you left because everything else—these are the only clean clothes you left, and third, you know clothes that have patterns do not look good on Zoom, right?
These are three crazy ideas explaining the same observation. What do I do about them?
I don’t have a good answer for that.
No, but tell me, what would you do?
Yeah. I mean, it seems that there’s a few options.
Go ahead. How did I decide which one is the best?
Well, can I engage you a little more on what’s important to you? Because that seems to be subjective.
No, I just want to figure out why you’re wearing a gray shirt and gray pants.
It was on top of the pile this morning.
I don’t want you to answer it, but that was not one of my explanations, right?
I came up with an explanation that you love gray color. How can I check whether this explanation is good? How? What do I do with it?
Well, if you engage with me on a daily basis, you can see if I frequently wear this color.
Exactly. So, if this is your favorite color and I observe you tomorrow, you should wear something gray, right?
But I need another experiment. I need to observe you again, right?
If my explanation is that this is the last clothes you have left because everything else is in the laundry, if this explanation is correct and I go and check your laundry basket, I will find clothes of other colors and if I go in your drawers, they would be empty. So, that’s another experiment, right?
And if my explanation is you’re wearing this because you’re on Zoom, and if this explanation is correct and I look at the videos of you on Zoom, you would always be wearing mono-color clothes, right?
And that is exactly what our process is. You observe something. You say, “Well, because of this or because of that or because of this,” right? We don’t know why. What can we do? We need to design new experiments and make predictions, right? So, if, for example, my explanation is that you like gray color and this is all you have, then my other explanation is that you wear the gray color because you need mono-color on Zoom, right? Then watching your Zoom videos would rule out the explanation that you love gray because you might not necessarily wear gray in every Zoom meeting, but you will wear single color stuff.
So, there’s some experiments that—and actually the experiment with going and looking for clothes, if I go and I find—so, let’s say you wear it because it’s your favorite color and I go and check on your other clothes, right, and they’re all gray, does it prove that it is your favorite color? Well, it gives us some indication, though maybe everything you just gave away everything else to your younger brother, right? So, we need to check this assumption. But I would not be able to rule out the idea that you’re wearing it because you’re on Zoom through this experiment, would I?
So, my explanation is you’re wearing it because you don’t have any other colors. You don’t have any other shirts. If all of them are gray, then it could be because you just like gray or—yeah you would definitely rule out the Zoom thing, then, if all your things are gray. Yes. That’s how you start thinking which experiment, which testing experiment is good and which is not so good, right? And then once you figure out that yes, he is wearing gray because that’s his favorite color, then you have an application experiment, I can give you a gift of a shirt in a gray color and I know that you will love it, right? That is my application experiment. It’s a practical thing after I figured it out. So, that’s how ISLE works.
Given your sensitivity to pedagogy and communicating to students, how did you and your colleagues come to the conclusion that a textbook was the best way to encapsulate and convey these ideas? As opposed to, say, teaching guides or articles? Why a textbook?
Well, the textbook comes with a teaching guide and we wrote articles and we did workshops and then the first question the people would ask is, “Do you have a textbook to go with it?”
So, there was that demand that you responded to.
Absolutely. Because even if you have materials, but the textbook that the course adopted contradicted you in language and in symbols and approaches, then you cannot use these materials. But then once we started, I realized that first, I’m getting better and better at writing and communicating and helping people learn as I am working on the textbook and lots of studies came out that students did not use textbooks to learn because they don’t know how to work with them and also because the textbooks are written in a way that it’s very hard to use, that they just are very didactic.
So, we wrote a different book and we implemented our philosophy in it and we used all the tools that physics education and research came up with, you know, everything is there plus results of our own research. This way I can say it’s not only to learn physics, but it’s also to learn how to work with a science text, which is very different. I see our textbook as doing more than helping you learn physics, but it helps you how to work with a science text, so that’s why I think it’s very important.
And a lot of teachers say, “I don’t use any textbooks,” and I say, “Yeah, but then your students will go to college to more advanced courses and they need to use textbooks or books or papers, but they don’t know how to read them, how to work with them.” Having this practice is really very, very important.
Given how ISLE has grown over the years, who are some of the key early adopters or champions of ISLE that might have given it that initial boost for that broader adoption?
That was Alan Van Heuvelen. So, I’ll tell you a story. When I was appointed as assistant professor, you know, you have to write papers so I decided I’ll write to The American Journal of Physics a paper about this process that I invented. And I called it epistemological approach to learning physics. So I wrote up basically a part of my dissertation. And I got a response in a week from The American Journal of Physics. My paper didn’t go out for review because Professor Romer, who was the editor at that time, he said, “Eugenia, it’s a great paper and we agree with every word of it and that’s a problem because everybody knows it and everybody does it. There’s nothing new in it.”
I knew Alan at that time because he invited me to give a talk about my work in the Extended General Physics course (the project with George Horton), so I knew him and I gave him a paper and I said, “Could you please tell me,”—and he just got his Millikan Award—about how we prepare students for the needs of the workplace in the 21st century? And I said, “Could you please tell me if you know it and if you do it?” He read the paper and he said, “You know what? I don’t know it, I don’t do it, but I would love to try because that’s exactly what I have been looking for.”
And of course, we didn’t have any materials in English at that time. So, the next semester, he called me every day and I coached him what to do in his course—he was teaching honors engineering students second semester of physics, I coached him exactly what experiments to do, what questions to ask, what to do in every class. And it wasn’t semester, it was quarters. When it was over, he said, “You know, we should not give them”—it was electricity and magnetism semester. He said, “I gave them the CSEM, but I don’t want to give a post-test because they’re not very good students. Last year, I got very good results and these students are weaker than my last year students based on FCI, so we probably will not get good results and I don’t want people to think that the method doesn’t work because I really loved it.”
And I said, “You know what? Just give it anyway. And if it’s bad, we will say it’s the first implementation and we’re not going to publish anything.” So he did, and he gave the post FCI and post CSEM and then that night he calls me and says, “Guess what? We have a huge gain compared to my previous years. I’m sold. Let’s write an NSF grant.” And then I talked to my friend, Suzanne Brahmia in the physics department and he talked to his former PhD student who just got a job at Chico, Xueli Zou and Suzanne Brahmia and then they became co-PIs on the grant and we wrote about creating materials. It was 2001, creating materials to teach this way. And thus Suzanne and Xueli, and Alan are the first people who believed in it and did it and without them, nothing would have happened.
And every talk that I give about ISLE, I show their faces and names. But the instrumental person, the person with the statue, the person who was respected in the field was Alan Van Heuvelen. So, without him, nothing would have happened.
Was the approach specifically U.S.-focused in the beginning and then it branched out globally, or it was a global purview out of the box?
I think it is global because it started actually back in the Soviet Union and in Russia and that’s how physics works. So, the nature, that’s how physics is done. I didn’t tell you the end of the story. So, then the next year, for the full semester, I went on sabbatical to the Ohio State. We collected data. The students wrote journals every week—what did I learn, how did I learn it—and I had examples of their work and their scores and I wrote my second version of the paper of how to do it. It didn’t have the name ISLE yet because that, as I said, the name was coined by Suzanne when we were writing the NSF grant and we didn’t have the grant yet, and it was rejected again, but this time, it went out to reviewers who said, “This is a very complicated system. Nobody will be able to implement it and what examples she gave of her students’ writing are unreal. Students will never write this way, so she basically faked the data.”
So, it wasn’t published again. First, because everybody knew it and everybody did it, and second because nobody could do it because it was too complicated. So, that was the story of my ISLE paper.
How much tailoring is necessary in terms of cultural sensitivities or appropriateness given the fact that ISLE has been adopted and that you’ve presented it literally all over the world?
Right. I don’t know. I think that adaptation is embedded in it because you don’t need to be right, you just need to be observant and come up with crazy ideas, right? It’s a crazy idea why you would have a gray shirt, but that’s exactly how we start. In our first classes—before videos—I would say you walk into my house and you see 10 TVs. What’s your question? “Well, why would you have 10 TVs?” Exactly. So, why would I have 10 TVs? Well, you’re a TV thief or you have 10 children or you’re a sports fan. OK. How do we decide which one is right?
And so it’s not physics at the beginning, it’s just crazy ideas, but then we move these crazy ideas to physics and we’re not allowing students to use fancy language nor terms that a 5-year-old cannot understand. So, work together, figure out how to test your crazy idea, come up with an experiment. If we have equipment, we’ll run it, if not, we probably already have a video. You don’t need to be right. And that is one of the things that is difficult in many cultures, like, if I don’t know the right answer, I will not speak.
But here from the beginning, it’s so silly and so crazy that you eventually just move into it. It’s more difficult for the teachers than for the students because what if they come up with something that I’m not ready for? And it happened to me many times that the students will come up with an explanation, I will have no idea how to test it. And then I will ask them, “OK, how would you test it?” And they will come up with a way to test it because they’re much smarter than we are.
Eugenia, roughly, for your research, is it most valuable to have your pulse on what physics teachers are thinking or what physics students are thinking? Or again, it’s an equal set of considerations?
It’s both, but I think that what is important is, like, how motivated students and teachers are to do it. Do they have the tools to do it? And will they experience the feeling of success doing it? But these things are true for all of us, right? You only do things that you want to do. I mean, you don’t, but what I’m saying is that in order to succeed in something, you need to be motivated, right? But you also need to have the tools to be successful and then you need to have this feeling of success, that you’re getting better.
And that is all embedded in the theory of flow as a psychological experience, you know, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work, flow? And it’s true for students and it’s true for teachers. And that’s why for me, every lesson that I ever taught was very short. I wouldn’t notice the time because I was in this state of flow. I was motivated, knew how to do it—not at the beginning, of course, but even at the beginning the lessons were too short—and I had this feeling of success when the students were learning and learning does not mean that, you know, people say, “I like when their eyes light up.” That’s not an indication of learning because if you ask them the next question, you will find out that their eyes light up for completely different reason. But it’s what they can do, what they can produce, the experiment that they can design, the idea that they can express, you know, what they can do. Not how they respond to my explanations, which is irrelevant for their learning, but what they can do. And once you can see what your students can do, that is like the best thing in the world.
Eugenia, in terms of institutional support for ISLE, either from government agencies in the United States or abroad or the foundation or non-profit world, who have been some of the key supporters of ISLE over the years?
Well, so, we got four grants from NSF. Then it stopped funding us completely. We tried to get NSF grants to study the community of ISLE implementers, to expand our materials for middle and high school, nothing. In the last 14 years, we did not get any funding from NSF. So, everything that was done was done by us for free. And of course, you know, Pearson and the textbook helped because you kind of have this distribution that people can see what you’re doing when they adopt the book, and so, that was helpful, but that was it. We got the last grant for PUM, physics union mathematics, the off chute of ISLE for middle school and high school, in 2007 and that was the very end of NSF funding for ISLE.
What was it like to receive the Millikan Award?
Crazy. Crazy. I was in Slovenia in my winter break when I got an email. I just couldn’t believe it, like, me? You know, who am I to get it? It was unreal. It’s completely unreal that when we were leaving to fly to the U.S. and I was just jumping in my plane seat every 2 minutes. I was like, “Oh my God, oh my God, I have a Millikan.” It was completely unreal.
What were some of the things that you wanted to convey in the award lecture given the fact that this is really such a major platform to discuss your research?
Well, exactly what I did in my talk, that we have this power to help people learn to think. And we should use this power to help them learn to think and we know how to do it and so, my lecture was about ISLE and how it changes people and how you think differently when you’re teaching through ISLE. And at the end, they gave me a standing ovation. That whole room got up and started clapping and I’ve never seen it before and nobody before or after got a standing ovation, and it wasn’t because of something that I did, but what happened, they realized that they have this power. And that’s what we need to channel this power to help people think.
It was 2014. If we only worked a little harder, maybe 2016 wouldn’t even happen, but we didn’t. So, yeah. And that’s how I teach my teachers. It’s not about teaching physics. It’s about teaching people to think so they can vote for the world. They can vote to save the world, not to enrich themselves.
In what ways are you concerned about broader political and social developments, particularly in the United States, about suspicion of science, denial of climate change, vaccine hesitancy, and what are the opportunities that you see to integrate these issues into your research?
Well, I think that it’s our fault. It’s the fault of educators. And that’s why I’ve been working so hard to change from teaching of physics to helping people learn how to think. And so, if you learn the difference between evidence and inference, right? between a mental construction and what we know using our instruments, then you start thinking, you start questioning all these crazy claims that come to you. What are they based on, who is the person producing them, and where is the evidence?
And so, if all people in the United States and everywhere else—that’s what I think—if they learn to think questioning—if they learn to question where statements come from, right? Then we would be in a much better place. And again, evaluating claims about climate change and evaluating claims about vaccinations, especially now, you know, every time you read that somebody died of Astra Zeneca from blood clotting, you have this knee-jerk reaction, you know, if she didn’t get a vaccine, she would be still alive, but that’s not true, right? That is absolutely not true. She would have gotten COVID and would have gotten the same blood clots from COVID.
So, what is the probabilistic reasoning and on what do we base our conclusions? So, do we need to include a discussion about vaccination in the physics course? Probably not, but do we need to have discussions of how we make decisions? Absolutely, yes. And so, that’s what I see the goal of learning physics is to understand how we make decisions and how we—what kind of knowledge you’re dealing with.
So, epistemology is the study of what knowledge is and how it came to be, right? When you tell me something and I ask myself, “Is that experimental evidence or this is somebody’s hypothesis? If it is a hypothesis, how was it tested? What are the results of the experiment? Was it a double-blind study or was it an observational—what kind of study is it? Is it an observational study that we have correlation which is not causation? Or it was a testing experiment where we can infer causation?”
So, all these questions are that we can learn through studying physics, but not through studying traditional physics that is focused on physics theories and concepts only. Not on the process of how we learn that, how they came to be, and how students constructed that.
Eugenia, it’s a narrow question, but I wonder if it has broader implications; when it was coming time to revise the textbook for the 2019 2nd edition, I wonder how the most important revisions as you saw them might have served as a microcosm for how the field has changed over the years?
Yeah. That’s a very good question. So, there are many reasons for the changes and one of them was actually the change in the AP physics. The college board revised AP courses to make them more thought-oriented as opposed to fact-oriented, and so, the AP curriculum committees came up with the new types of problems and though we had new types of problems that made people really think, we didn’t have them enough. So, we started designing new types of problems.
It was like an inspiration. It’s not like the book is to help people do well in AP—which in a way it might be—but it really inspired us to think outside the box and come up with new types of problems. The second is these amazing opportunities technology, right? Technology that changed. So, we have now infrared cameras that we didn’t have when we were working on the first edition. The person who joined the team, Gorazd Planinsic, is a world class experimentalist and what he can do with experiments, nobody else can do in the whole universe. So, having these opportunities for experimental problems and great videos and excellent ways of asking these questions is also important.
But another thing is that you start thinking of what parts of your approach can be improved. And I’ve been working with two people, Lane Seeley and Stamatis Vokos on the energy project, and my understanding of the importance of different aspects of energy changed because of this project. And that went into the book with new problems and new approaches. My work with David Brookes affected more the coherence of the approach to forces, so, we changed that. And basically, these different projects that I was working on to do research in different areas, they all went into the book.
And more recently—we already talked about your initiative with Syracuse—what else is important to you these days? What are some of the other broader trends in the field that you’re following and what are the research projects that you’re currently working on?
Well, we’re finishing up a very interesting project with David Brookes and Matt Wonk, and Peter Bohacek and Anna Karelina related to studying whether experiments that the student observed on videos lead to different reasoning in physics compared to real experiments that they did. The project was funded and started long before COVID, but with the COVID times, it became really important, you know, when the students have access to video experiments where they can manipulate variables, how do they see it and how they are reasoning compared to when they’re working in an ISLE environment with real experiments?
We are writing papers about it and still we are studying. We have a ton of data. That’s one of the projects that I will be working on for a long time because we have a lot of data, like we’re studying videos with gestures and seeing how students’ gestures help them reason, and I watch the videos without sound and only focus on the gestures. I don’t know what they’re talking about, like what kind of gestures and David is watching the videos. He’s not watching, he’s listening. So, he is doing time stamps for what they are talking and I’m doing time stamps on the movement of their hands and bodies and then we see the correlation when they’re doing a mental breakthrough in their conversation, what are their bodies doing?
And we find a very interesting pattern is that your whole body is engaged in reasoning. That there is never—I won’t say never because we didn’t analyze enough data, but there’s very rarely a moment when you’re talking and having a productive idea when you’re not engaging your body, when you’re not simulating what you’re saying with your hands. And so, watching the students, how they move their hands and how it resembles the equipment or the experiment, you know, when they’re not doing an experiment, but when they reason, they replicate the experiment with their hands. So, that’s something that I’m working on.
You know what my major goal is in an ideal world? It sounds very arrogant, but I want every single classroom to be an ISLE classroom with different variations of course, people can use different materials, but the process that it’s focused on—it’s a coherent thing because there are many curriculum approaches that have really good activities, but they don’t have the universal philosophy—other than modelling instruction—that unifies everything that students do. And so, having this unification in student experiences and the reasoning that we offer and the tools and everything, that would be my ideal goal of the rest of my life.
Now, if the dream is every classroom should be an ISLE classroom, are there intellectual competitors to ISLE or is the option it’s either an ISLE classroom or it’s not an ISLE classroom?
No. There are good competitors, absolutely, and one of them is modelling instruction that approaches the process of knowledge construction differently, but it’s also a logical progression that is—very good and coherent progression that mirrors what scientists do. And there are other approaches that have good ideas, but what they do not have is this big time philosophy. And I think that only—well, I would say there’s another approach—paradigms for example—in physics that has a unifying philosophy.
But what I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t necessarily need to be an ISLE classroom. I agree with you, but it has to be a coherent thing instead of, you know, the teachers—I’m on this Facebook group, the physics teachers who implement NGSS and there’s continuous stream of questions, you know, “I need to do a lab tomorrow on momentum. What should I do?” I don’t do this kind of thing. I don’t do a lab on momentum. I do the learning of momentum as a coherent approach with certain elements that are very important.
So, if you have this coherent approach to learning momentum and energy and forces and electric deals, then that’s fine, but if you are pulling different activities from different places just to survive today, that’s not what I would consider good. And when I say I want every classroom to be an ISLE classroom, of course I think that ISLE is superior. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it, right?
I respect the work of others very much, but deep inside, to be truthful, of course I think ISLE is the best. Do we need to work on it? Yes. Do we need to improve it? Absolutely. Do we need to make it easier for people to implement? Yes. That’s one of my goals; how do you make it easier for people to implement?
But probably those objectives are more easily met the more widely adopted ISLE is.
Well, Eugenia, we’ve worked all the way up to the present. For the last part of our talk, I’d like to ask some broadly retrospective questions about your career and then we’ll end looking to the future. What have been some of the key feedback mechanisms you’ve gotten in the course of your research that tell you either you’re on the right track or you need to change course?
Well, conferences are important. Writing grants is important. Papers are—anything that has peer review, in a way, is very important, but also trying things that we design, trying with the students and with the teachers. So I have this community of my graduates from my physics program who are working as physics teachers, so before, we would meet once a month for like 3 or 4 hours, now we meet every 2 weeks online after pandemic. Every single activity that we make—the new thing—we try with them.
I try new activities with my students and Gorazd Planinsic tries it with his students, so trying and having feedback is very important for individual things, but for research, of course, it’s like peer review is a very powerful thing. It makes everything better. And you get angry and upset when your paper is rejected or your grant is not funded or people have—for your 10 page paper, you get 20 pages of comments. You get angry and upset, but then eventually things get better. Grant funding is more difficult, I won’t even talk about it. But the paper, peer refereed papers, I’ve always gotten very, very good feedback. And of course, collaborating with other people, so, working with other people, this is the key to progress. I don’t know what I would have done by myself, probably nothing.
And I was lucky that in the school of education, I happened to work with people who are not physicists. Like, one of my most influential collaborators was Cindy Hmelo-Silver, who’s an educational psychologist, and I learned about problem-based learning from her and we had a grant together. That just opened up a whole new world for me. So, yeah. Like, honestly, I would be nothing without my collaborators and my PhD students. Every dissertation was instrumental for my development. I always joke that, “I learn more from you than you learn from me,” and that is absolutely true.
And I was blessed with amazing graduate students. And everyone contributed to my growth. So, yeah, honestly, it’s my graduate students and my teachers from whom I learn the best because peer refereed process is OK, but how many papers you write a year, you know? If you’re lucky, you’ll probably have three to four, but on average, maybe two. But the graduate students and the teachers that I work with, every day. Yeah. That would be number one.
Eugenia, I’m thinking back to when you were talking about your parents and some of the generational distinctions. You’ve been at this long enough now where you’ve seen at least one, if not two, generations of both teachers and students. What has changed and what has stayed the same in this transition from generation to generation with regards to the research questions that are most important to you?
I have no idea how to answer it. You know, people ask me, “Did you have a culture shock when you came to U.S.?” And I said, “No. I didn’t feel anything because physics teachers are physics teachers everywhere. Physics professors are physics professors everywhere.” And students—surprisingly—I would say they get more and more creative every year. I think that the availability of technology just—I don’t know what it does to people, but I feel—I’m very afraid of being obsolete because they learn so much faster and they can do things so much better.
I think that’s what changed is that I have to rely on the students much more now to do things that I don’t know how to do and they learn these new things much faster. My teachers teach me so much more about using technology than I could ever teach them and this process is speeding up. And the research—I think actually that the research should not—I would say it’s the same. It’s studying how do we help people learn best, right? And so, with the new technology, of course there are new opportunities, but the big questions, I don’t think they change. How do we help and why does something work?
So, Joe Redish’s need for theory, why something works and how do we predict what will work or what won’t is important, but also how do we make people happy learners?—this is the last thing that is really important and this is probably the biggest change is that you start thinking about people learning as improving their well-being. Right? We think of people learning as knowing more, but does it make them happy people? Are they more motivated? Do they believe in themselves more? Do they think they can do it, right? So, this is where we should start going thinking about physics is how does learning physics improve the well-being of students, as a human being? Do you start thinking that your brain is plastic and you can learn stuff or you think that you’re just not good enough to do physics?
Do you feel a part of the community or you’re here by yourself? I don’t think that I would study physics communities 20 years ago. I didn’t realize how important it was, but now I would. My teachers are starting to study their students’ perceptions of growth mindset, so that’s something that I would not study before, though I thought it was important. So, now that I’m talking through your question, I think that it’s moving more from studying how students develop physics-like qualities, can they design an experiment, can they evaluate the uncertainties, how do we help them do this, to studying the human development when people learn physics. So, that is probably the biggest shift.
Eugenia, a last question, looking to the future. As we both know, retiring and no longer being active in the field are two very different things. So for you, however long you want to be active, what’s most important to you? What do you want to accomplish?
As I already said—
ISLE in every classroom.
ISLE in every classroom. Yeah. That’s my goal.
Let me reframe, then. What’s it going to take to get there?
I don’t know. Sometimes I get very discouraged, that no matter what I do, people find it too difficult, too complicated, too scary. And it’s not their fault. It’s my fault that I didn’t figure out yet. So, I have to figure out how to make it more accessible. That’s my goal. So, it’s not the problem of the world, it’s my own problem that I just don’t know how to do it yet and I’ve been struggling with it and working with different people, but that is very difficult, how to make it accessible, more accessible. No matter what we do, it’s still not exactly what should be done. So I hope to find it. That’s my goal.
Eugenia, it’s been a great pleasure and so much fun spending this time with you, I’m so glad we were able to do this. Thank you so much.
Thank you, David.