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Interview of Fred Goldberg by David Zierler on July 26, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview, Fred Goldberg discusses: impact of COVID-19 pandemic on physics education and teaching tools; Jewish heritage, religious, and cultural practices; undergraduate and graduate experience with Bill Williams at University of Michigan; time at West Virginia University; work with Charles Wales; sabbatical with Lillian McDermott at the University of Washington and the beginnings of physics education research (PER); first PER gathering at an American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) meeting; first successful NSF PER proposal; move to San Diego State University to be at the Center for Research on Math and Science Education (CRMSE); Arnold Arons and Alfred Bork’s computer software programs; experiences on the cutting edge of using computers to enhance physics learning; shift from focusing on individual learning to how student groups learn; NSF’s ongoing support for his work; the Constructing Physics Understanding (CPU) project; Physics and Everyday Thinking curriculum development; Next Generation Science Standards curriculum alignment; development of a faculty online learning community (FOLC) and the shift toward studying faculty change and support; role of AAPT; decline of general population’s ability to engage in evidence-based reasoning; and how his work helps teachers develop an informed citizenry. Toward the end of the interview, Goldberg reflects on the difficulties of trying to change the way faculty thinks about teaching and how his own ideas and interests have evolved over the years. He emphasizes the importance of issues of equity and inclusion in science education going forward.
This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is July 26th, 2021. I'm delighted to be here with Professor Fred Goldberg. Fred, it’s great to see you. Thank you for joining me today.
Fred, to start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
I am an Emeritus Professor of Physics at San Diego State University.
When did you go Emeritus?
I guess it was 2017, I think.
Now, as I've come to appreciate, Emeritus and no longer being active are two very different concepts. So in light of that, how have you remained connected with the department at San Diego, both administratively and academically?
What I'm not doing is I'm not teaching, and I'm not serving on any committees associated with the Physics Department at San Diego State University. Now, I have also been associated with the Center for Research in Math and Science Education, which is an interdisciplinary effort involving math and science faculty at the university who are conducting various kinds of projects in educational research and professional development, curriculum development, and so forth. And so I continued my association by participating in meetings through the Center. We also have a joint math and science education doctoral program with the University of California San Diego, and we have a number of doctoral students. So, I had been working with them also. But this is mostly through the Center, and through the joint doctoral program, and not so much through the Physics Department.
At San Diego generally, with regard to PER, in what areas of your research are you an island unto yourself, and in what areas are there centers, collaborators, likeminded people, that you can tap in with locally at San Diego?
Actually, at San Diego State, in the Physics Department I have been pretty much an island unto myself. There is another Physics Department faculty member who is interested in some very creative physics education stuff, and we have talked about our interests, but we have not actually worked and collaborated on projects together. I had mentioned the Center for Research in Math and Science Education, or CRMSE as we call it, and I have interacted with many of the other faculty associated with that, but not on major projects. Most of my project collaborators—and my entire career have been involved with collaborators—have been really all over the United States and some international. And that has been most of my work.
From your academic track, what are the areas in physics that you would consider sort of your home subfield and have you kept up with the literature in that area, if only because that has been useful for PER research?
So you're talking about in traditional physics areas?
Actually, I have not been following through in traditional areas—I was originally an atomic physicist, working in experimental atomic physics for my PhD. I worked on that for a little bit after I graduated. But I have always been, ever since I was a little kid, interested in explaining physics or teaching physics to other people. So that has really become my full 100% effort for, I guess the last 30 years, since the early 1980s. So my focus has really been keeping up on the literature in physics education research and not in traditional physics, other than just becoming generally aware of what’s going on.
Just as a snapshot in time, what are you currently working on? And more broadly, in pedagogy, what’s interesting to you in the field?
Right now, I'm working on a project with a bunch of other people. Over the years I have developed with others curriculum materials used mainly at universities by prospective elementary teachers to learn physics. For the last four years, I've been involved in what I guess you would call an educational transformation project that’s funded through NSF, where we've developed an online faculty learning community of about 50 university faculty members from diverse institutions around the country, all of whom are using a curriculum I helped develop in their teaching, in their classes. And in this community, the faculty are divided into small groups who meet online via Zoom, usually every couple of weeks, to discuss issues related to the teaching and learning of physics, particularly in the context of implementing that curriculum. And it’s a very student-oriented curriculum, very different from the instructor having responsibility for telling the physics ideas to the students. In this curriculum the instructor helps students build ideas themselves. And because it’s a very different and challenging role for faculty members, we believe this community provides them the important support for them to become more effective implementors of the curriculum and more reflecting about teaching and learning in general. And so I'm part of that team.
All the meetings the faculty have are videotaped. And so one of the big research efforts on the project has been to try to understand how faculty change, both the faculty who are implementing the curriculum, and also the facilitators of the meetings, those members of each group who are charged with guiding the discussions and helping the instructors address various kinds of teaching issues that emerge. So, we've been studying both the faculty members and the facilitators of those meetings to see how they have changed and evolved over time. The project has been going on for four years, and it’s kind of unusual to be able to follow people over that length of time. That has occupied all my professional time. And I guess I'm about 50% full time working on it, for the last several years now.
A question very germane to current events—how has the pandemic and the mandates for remote learning changed some of the things that you've thought in all of your decades thinking about physics education?
Well, I guess starting last March—and again, and since I’m not teaching anymore, I'm following this because I'm living through teaching physics vicariously by watching other people talk about it. And when there was a big change when all the universities shifted to online instruction, the challenges changed. Well, some of the challenges were similar, in the sense of how do you get students to share their ideas with others in the class. This has always been a big issue in pedagogy. But the tools that you had available to try to promote student sharing changed from face-to-face meetings to online instruction.
And so, a lot of the instructors that we were studying developed and discovered new ways of interacting with their students and dealing with all the challenges associated with the online instruction. And that’s what we have observed happening. They have become more comfortable with the teaching strategy during the Pandemic, and now there’s again a shift. I think almost all of the faculty members in our project—and we have close to 50—are now going to be doing entirely face-to-face instruction in the classroom again, or maybe some hybrid combination. And what’s interesting is to see the tools that they learned to use effectively in the pure online instruction mode, to what extent they may try to keep some of them when they move to face-to-face--to incorporate some online components into the course that they found successful, that they had not done before the pandemic.
What’s worth keeping as we finally start to think about moving beyond the pandemic, and going back to in-person learning? What have been some of the takeaways where some aspects of remote learning might be worth keeping?
Well, let me think about that for a minute. There have been some interesting tools for collaboration for students. For example, there are the Google jamboards, kind of virtual whiteboards that students have learned to use, where they can work in small groups, online, to draw diagrams and address various problems collaboratively—I think that tool may be kept. So I think that’s the kind of collaboration tool that people needed to use online that they’ll want to keep.
I think also there is a better appreciation of how faculty can listen in on the conversations of the student groups. It was at first very challenging to do in an online environment. You know, with Zoom, you can assign students to go into all these various rooms, breakout rooms. And so the faculty, what they tried to do initially was to do online what they had previously done in the classroom, almost like a one-to-one kind of transfer—from walking around in the classroom to listen to various groups to move around to the various breakout rooms to listen. They tried, with mixed success, and so they had to adapt. And because we had so many people working on this in our project, they adapted using different kinds of techniques and strategies. And so I think that whatever faculty learned how to encourage students to work together in small groups to collaborate, whatever they learned to make that more effective online, that’s going to carry over, I think, to the face-to-face meetings themselves.
Fred, let’s engage in some oral history now. Let’s take it all the way back to the beginning. Let’s start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them.
Okay, my parents. Well, my family—I'm Jewish—my family, both sets of grandparents came from Russia, actually from Ukraine. And I know a little bit more about exactly where my mother’s family came from in Ukraine, and a little less about exactly where my father’s family came from. But there’s a couple of interesting stories. My mother and father, they're both deceased now, but I had the opportunity of interviewing them, like you're doing with me, over the last 25, 30 years. S I have kind of an archival record where they talked about what they remember about their parents and their grandparents.
My family in Russia did not have a lot of formal education. Yet both my parents talked about how clever and smart and intelligent their parents were, even though they didn't have the formal education. My mother’s family came from a little village, it’s called a shtetl, just outside of Kiev in Ukraine, by the name of—I think it’s pronounced Bukee (Bukier). And my grandfather, my mother’s father, was one of the first from that village to come over to the United States in the early 1900s. And what he did—this may have been typical of people who came over, with great social responsibility—he settled in Philadelphia, and then immediately set up an association, which he called the Bukier Association, named after the village where he came from. And the initial purpose of this association was to raise money to bring over family members and other friends from that same village near Kiev to Philadelphia. And so over time, more and more people were brought over and settled in Philadelphia. I think my grandfather was for a time the president of this organization. And then what happened, as people settled in, got older and older, some of them began to die. And so the purpose, the main purpose of the association shifted, from raising funds to bring people over, to essentially buying burial plots in a cemetery. And of course, now they're all gone, but there is a cemetery just outside of Philadelphia, called Montefiore, where there’s a whole area that’s called the Bukier section, and all the gravestones have the names of the people who came from that particular village in that shtetl outside of Kiev. And what makes me proud is that my grandfather apparently served a major role in having that happen. So that’s something from my mother’s side of the family.
From my father’s side of the family, the one story I have is his mother, my grandmother, in Russia. Her mother died, and her father remarried, and my grandmother apparently intensely disliked her stepmother. And so that drove her, at the age of 12, with a little support from some family members, to make the trek from Ukraine to the United States by herself. She tells the story of going from town to town, city to city in Europe, and trying to get people to help her, and then eventually coming over through Ellis Island. There were some family members, I guess, in Philadelphia, and so she came to Philadelphia, and she was still 12 years old when she arrived. She met my grandfather, and then she got married at 16. So that’s how some of my grandparents came over. I don’t know if you want to hear more stories about my father and my mother.
Well, my father had two siblings. There were three boys in the family. My father was the oldest. He wanted to be a medical doctor. That was his goal. But—and not an uncommon tale at the time—there was not a lot of money in the family, so he had to work. There was money for him to go to pharmacy school [laughs], which cost a lot less money at the time than going to medical school. So he became a pharmacist. And actually, several members of my family later on—an uncle, my brother—they all became pharmacists. So we had a lot of pharmacists in our family. My father’s youngest brother, the third one who came along, eventually did go to medical school—there was eventually some money. My father and others contributed. He became a very famous academic doctor, a kidney specialist.
My father lived in Philadelphia. His father, my grandfather, was a tailor, a skill he had learned in Russia. Their home was on the street corner, and it was a tailor shop downstairs. And right across the street from the tailor shop was a candy store that was owned by my mother’s father, the one who was president of the Bukier Association. And one of his daughters became attracted to my father. At the time, the way she tells it, she would invite him over for a piece of candy or a snack or a piece of cake. You know the saying, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. And eventually, they fell in love and got married. This was in 1939.
And my mom, as she tells it, had wanted to be a nurse. Her enjoyed taking care of people. But they had my brother almost right away, and I think she decided that instead of going into a career, she would instead help my dad in the pharmacy with some of the financial aspects of it, and raise a family. After my brother was born, I came next, and then many years later, my sister was born. So that’s a little bit about the background of my family.
Fred, for both your mom and dad’s families, did they come from more secular or observant families?
I think it was mixed. My mother’s father was not very observant, the one who formed the Bukier Association. But other members of the family were Orthodox and quite religious. I remember growing up as a young boy, going to visit my grandmother’s brother and sister who lived very close. At that time, the whole family lived fairly close together in the city, in Philadelphia. I remember, for the holiday of Passover, where every year we’d read the Haggadah, the book that tells the story of the Jews exodus from Egypt, we’d talk about why certain things are done, certain rituals. One of the rituals was that people would recline, lean back, when eating. And I remember my uncle, during Passover, going to his house, and he actually did that. He actually was reclining, like on a sofa, during the Passover sedar. And that was the only time I actually observed that [laughs] happening. It was also a time that I looked forward to going there during another holiday, Hannukah, because I would get 25 cents in what was called Hanukah gelt at the time, which for me was a huge amount of money. Compared to today of course, it’s nothing. It’s a joke! But at that time, it was very meaningful. And I think my father’s family was not very religious when I was growing up. Everybody went to Temple, a Conservative temple, for the High Holy Days and some other special holidays, but most of them did not go on an ongoing basis during the year.
And for you growing up, how Jewishly connected was your family? Were you Bar Mitzvahed? Did you have Passover seder, those kinds of things?
Yes and yes. Growing up I did go to Hebrew school, I did go to Sunday school, and learned what young Jewish boys typically learn. But after my Bar Mitzvah, I did not continue going to Temple very much. I did continue to go to Temple for the High Holy Days, and from time to time, but it was not an ongoing thing.
Later in life, after I got married, my wife and I sort of followed the same procedure. That is, in our house, we would celebrate the major holidays—the Passover sedar for example, and the High Holy Days—and we also went to Temple from time to time. My wife, Dianne, enrolled in many of the educational courses offered at our Temple, but not me. However, after she got sick and passed away in 2002, I felt a need to become more involved in the Temple. I attended Friday evening services regularly for about a year, but then much less so. I also decided to join the Temple’s social action committee, both as a way of keeping an active connection to the Temple and to do something good. I have remained active in that committee to the present day. I would say that my late wife and I were not extremely religious Jews. We were more, what you’d call, cultural Jews.
Both my children were—I have two daughters—both of them were Bat Mitzvahed, so we followed that tradition. But beyond that, I would say that none of us in the family have regularly gone to temple. After my first wife passed away, I remarried several years later. And my second wife, Lisa, also is not very religious—we attend High Holiday services and celebrate Passover every year. Our sedar is a big family event, and we look forward to it. I love running those sedars, and I always try to make them interesting, if possible. [laughs]
Fred, what neighborhood did you grow up in?
In Philadelphia, when I was very young my family lived in an area called Strawberry Mansion and then, at age 5 we moved to Logan, in north Philly, where my father had purchased a drug store, and our home was above it. From there I walked to my elementary school and then to my junior high school. And then when I was 13, my father wanted to open a new and larger store. He purchased some land in a suburb north of the city, and we moved to a town called Chalfont. I went to high school near there for four years, before I went off to college. And my dad continued working at the pharmacy for many years, and then eventually sold it. My parents moved and he continued working as a pharmacist on a part-time basis for others until he retired.
Were you involved at all? Did you work in the drug store, summers, weekends, that kind of thing?
It’s funny you ask. I was never interested in business. My older brother (he was four years older) was very interested in business, and so he was the one who worked in the store. He went to Pharmacy school and also became a pharmacist. I did help in the store from time to time when my dad asked. I would work a few hours. I did it more out of family obligation than out of love or general interest. And this was true [laughs] my entire life. I was more interested in academic pursuits than I was in working in a store and trying to sell things [laughs] to people.
Fred, when did you start to get interested in science?
When I was very young, I was interested in science, and I was interested in explaining things. I think I just loved this idea of teaching or helping other people learn things. Because science was connected so much to everyday things, it was fun to talk about. So with my friends, my family, when I dated girls, I took pleasure in getting them to ask questions, and I would try to answer them, and they would give me great feedback. They’d say things like—“Oh, Fred, I never understood that. You should be a teacher. You're good at that.” And I think that started when I was very young. Now, I was also interested in math when I was very young, and when I went off to college, my original intent was to major in math, but that did shift to physics.
Was there anything going on more broadly in society, the launch of Sputnik, the Space Race, things beyond your immediate purview, that might have been influential as you developed these interests?
Well, I imagine so, of course. The curiosity of space, what was going on out there, I can’t imagine—I was certainly affected, like everybody else. But one of my genuine personal interests in science was not only to understand nature, but it was always—like I said before, it was always as a vehicle to explain things to others. And I just always found that—I mean, I remember when I was a little kid, I just loved the idea of explaining—writing things, drawing diagrams, and helping other people to understand things. And that has carried through to today. I enjoy that, very much.
Between your family’s financial capacity, geographic considerations, and your grades, what kinds of colleges were in reach for you to apply to?
I was interested at first in a small college, and I didn't—not that I was a mommy’s boy, but I didn't feel comfortable going very far away. So I applied to and went to Gettysburg College. It’s in central Pennsylvania, a couple hours’ drive from where I grew up, where we lived at the time, which was just outside of Philadelphia. And it was a choice based on the fact that it had a very good reputation as a liberal arts college. And because it was small (about 1800 students) I assumed the teachers gave lot of attention to students. I think that kind of attracted me. That, plus the fact that it was reasonably close to home.
I went there for a couple years. Then I changed schools and went to the University of Michigan. But while at Gettysburg I also changed my major from mathematics to physics. That’s an interesting story, because in my first semester as a Freshman I had a very bad experience in my intro calculus class, and an outstanding experience in my introductory physics class. As you know, teachers can have a big impact, especially on impressionable youth, like I'm sure I was at the time. And in my freshman year I had a math teacher who, I don’t know, must have been 120 years old. He wasn’t 120, but to me, he seemed like it. Our class met in the basement of an old building, one of the oldest buildings on campus. And it was a room that was musty. It had pillars throughout the room, so you had to kind of position yourself in your chair in order to see the teacher in the front. Like I said, he was old and wore old clothing, I think the same outfit every day. I just remember he had a tie that sort of stuck to his shirt. And his speaking style was very slow, very deliberate, and very dull. He made the math very uninteresting. It was just really hard to be motivated by that.
On the other hand, not far away across campus in the physics building there was this very young, very enthusiastic, very energetic faculty member—he was the chair of the department—who jumped up on the table, on the lecture table, and would articulate and gesture with his hands. They would fling from side to side as he spoke. He would show demonstrations. He was very excitable. And I loved him. I loved what he did. And I came to love physics even more, because of his teaching. His name was Richard Mara. So, because of him I switched majors from math to physics. And I also decided what I wanted to do [laughs] eventually in life for a profession. I wanted to be a professor just like him. That was my goal.
In my junior year—no, actually at the end of my sophomore year—I decided I wanted to move to a larger school. And that was in part because I wanted the opportunity that a larger school may have offered. But also there was a personal reason. Earlier I didn't care much about who I saw and dated, but I was one of only two Jewish students in the college, at the time. I was a slow comer to dating, and I realized there were not really many opportunities there. So I transferred to the University of Michigan, a much larger school with many more social opportunities, and started my junior year there, and stayed on for my bachelor’s and PhD in physics.
Fred, did you find Jewish student life to be pretty rich at Michigan?
Yes. Definitely. I mean, it was like night and day. It was just very, very different. At Gettysburg I met some very nice girls, but they were not Jewish, and there came a point when I decided it was important for me to date Jewish girls.
Now, your transfer of interest from math to physics, did this happen right around the same time?
As I mentioned, it happened during my freshman year and was really motivated by having this horrible experience in my calculus course, with this professor who just made the whole subject extremely dull, uninteresting. And the physics professor there made physics so lively and interesting that I decided I was going to make that shift. I was glad I did. Part of this was that always in the back of my mind—this is what I said earlier—was this driving desire to teach or explain science, physics, to a larger community. So not only did I enjoy the physics and want to pursue that, but I also wanted the eventual opportunity to explain it, to students, in an academic position, just like Dr. Mara, my physics professor at Gettysburg. So that was my long-term goal, probably after my freshman year.
What kinds of physics was most interesting to you as an undergraduate?
Oh my god.
I mean, we can start broadly with, was it more theory, was it more experiment? Was it particle physics? Was it condensed matter?
Probably more experimental physics. Because once I went to Michigan, I worked for a short time inputting data for a high-energy physics experiment at a computer. It was only an opportunity to make some money, not really very exciting. But then a little later, and I can’t remember how I met this professor, Bill Williams, but he did experiments in atomic physics. And I guess he was looking for a student. Now, I was only a junior at the time, but I was able to join his group, as a junior, and got involved right away on some of the experimental work that they were doing, and then just stayed on with him right through my Ph.D. So I was probably able to get through to my PhD a little more quickly than the average student did, because I essentially started some of my work when I was a junior at the University of Michigan.
What year did you graduate as an undergraduate from Michigan?
It would have been 1967, I got my BS, and then 1971, I got my PhD.
Now when, on campus, were things most interesting, shall we say, in terms of the antiwar movement, the counterculture, women’s liberation, that kind of thing? When did that really start?
Yeah, that was when I was there. [laughs] Right. So there was a lot of activity going on with the anti-Vietnam War movement on campus, a lot of protests. I remember the police coming on campus. I remember tear gas on campus. I was only partially involved in that. I was aware of it. I joined in some of the demonstrations, but I was not one who got tear gassed.
Now to go back, you mentioned as a junior, you were already getting involved in what would become your graduate research. Tell me a little bit more about that. What were you looking at, as a junior?
Well, it was almost right away. I can’t remember exactly what project I started working on, as a junior. But at some point, my advisor was interested in doing experiments involving helium-helium collisions with energies in the few kiloelectron volt range. And there was some crude apparatus he was using, and he wanted to build a much larger experimental apparatus to explore these collisions. And so I started working on that, and that really became my dissertation topic. I was part of his group. Although I started as an undergraduate, I continued when I became a graduate student. It really was not a huge shift doing that. I just remember working, almost living, down in the sub-basement of the physics building, called Randall lab, and spending gads of time figuring out how to build and get the apparatus to work. Took a few years.
I remember the fellow graduate students—I remember it was such a wonderful collaboration and people just helped each other. Just down in the sub-basement with people doing different experiments, but everybody was there to sort of help everybody else. I don’t think I had a lot of natural talent in experimental physics, but I did learn, and eventually was successful in getting everything to work and to collect data.
To what extent was this work related to what your graduate advisor was doing at the time?
Well, that was something he was interested in. He had other kinds of projects involving atomic physics, and had other students work on those. I believe funding for my experiment came through the Department of Defense, not the National Science Foundation. So, he wanted somebody to work on this, and asked me to do it—it’s not something I chose myself. It became my focus.
Now, to foreshadow a little bit—is pedagogy, is physics education, is this on your radar at all as a graduate student? Were you thinking at all about the ways in which physics were taught?
Interesting. While I was a graduate student, I did not teach laboratories, or recitation sections like some of the other students, because I was funded—well, two things were happening at this time. I was funded by a research assistantship, and so I didn't have to teach. But also, at the same time, people were being drafted for the Vietnam war. And so I remember having a conversation with my advisor and some other faculty members about getting a student deferment, so I could continue my graduate work at the time. And there was a recommendation that what I could do is take on a new responsibility as a graduate student, that is work on a new kind of a job, which the department would recognize as being critically important, and they would be able to attest to that in any letters that they would have to write to draft boards and what have you.
And so I became what was called the department’s lecture demonstrator. At the time, the physics department was in two buildings. One was mainly research labs, where I worked on my experiment, and the other had mainly offices for physics and astronomy faculty, and also had two big lecture halls, where all the students came for the introductory physics lectures. In between, there was a pathway down into a basement where there was this huge room with hundreds of pieces of physics apparatus, demonstration equipment that had been purchased and constructed, I don’t know, for over 30 years or so before me. And I was given the job of being in charge of all that equipment. So for about two years while I was a graduate student, while I was working in the lab across the street, for the rest of my time, I would be essentially setting up physics demonstrations in the two lecture halls for various professors. If I didn’t need to spend so much time doing that job, I may have finished my Ph.D. even earlier.
And there were some professors who didn’t want to show the demonstrations themselves. Perhaps they were concerned that the demonstration apparatus would not work, and they’d be embarrassed in front of hundreds of students. And so they would ask, “Fred, why don’t you run the demonstrations, and I'll talk about them?” So that was the closest I came to doing anything in front of the class. Most of the profs, however, did feel okay showing the demonstrations themselves, so they would just give me a list of what they wanted to do and I would set up the equipment for them, and put everything away after class. And so I became the department’s lecture demonstrator, usually in charge of just setting up the demonstration apparatus but sometimes also actually doing the demonstrations.
And that was really interesting, because I realized that lecture demonstrations were a wonderful way of helping students make connections between the concepts of physics and everyday phenomena. They had a wonderful shop at the University of Michigan that constructed some of these demonstrations, ones that couldn’t be purchased ready-made. I also designed a few pieces of apparatus myself. I also just learned a lot of physics, I guess, by figuring out how everything worked.
The place where the apparatus was kept, and where my office was, was also the place where I spent a lot of time with the girl who was going to become my wife. I often brought her down into the lecture demonstration rooms and I did what I always enjoyed doing earlier in life, and that is I’d say, “Hey, Dianne, let me show you this thing here.” And I would show her this apparatus, and she would say, “Oh, neat! How does that work?” Which of course was exactly what I wanted to hear. And so I would try to explain to her how that worked, which gave me a lot of pleasure, and of course I liked her even more because of that.
It was also—just a side issue—I remember when I had decided I was going to propose to my wife, I did so down in the demonstration room. I chased her around the room, around the lecture tables in the room, and then caught her. I probably said something silly, like I got you, and then I proposed after doing that. So that room, and the job as lecture demonstrator, served multiple purposes for me while I was a graduate student.
Back to the experiment, in what ways was it responsive to some of the broader issues in the field at this point?
My graduate experiment, you mean, that I was doing?
I barely can remember now because a few years after I graduated, I stopped working on that, and I have not been working on that since then. So at the time, what I know is that there was an interest in looking at low-energy or medium-energy electron capture cross sections collisions for both ground state and metastable helium atoms. And so that’s kind of what generated the whole idea for the experiment.
When did you know you had enough to defend the thesis?
Well, my goal was to collect data and determine the cross sections for various interactions between helium ions and other gases. And so I collected enough data to determine these collision cross sections, and that’s when my advisor thought it was sufficient. And so I remember defending my dissertation. It was an interesting defense, actually, both because of my description and explanation for the experiment, but also the physics questions that were asked as part of the defense. My committee asked me questions about the experiment and about physics, so I guess I needed to convince them that I had some competence in understanding the physics.
Now I'll really test your memory, Fred—who was on your thesis committee?
Well, my advisor Bill Williams chaired the committee. Gabriel Weinreich was on my committee. You know, I’d have to go look at my dissertation to find out the other members. [Checking later: Hugh Aller, Walter Gray and Oliver Overseth were also on my committee.] And what I remember with the questions that they asked, the physics questions that they asked—there was both physics knowledge and dissertation work—is they were all extremely elementary questions. I was not asked any very sophisticated physics questions as part of my defense. I guess the thought was—and again, I don’t know if this was common to everybody—but if I can explain simple ideas substantively and thoroughly in a way that make sense, that that probably showed that I had a good understanding of physics. This of course played well into my own interests, because that’s what I wanted to do. So for me, it turned out to be kind of easy to have the defense.
What opportunities were available to you after you defended? Were you looking at postdocs, faculty positions?
Well, you have to remember, my goal was to—remember that guy standing on the table waving his arms, the physics professor? That’s what I wanted to do. So I was looking for academic positions. Now, this was in the very early 1970s and there were very few academic positions available at that time—it was a low point. There were positions in government. There were some in industry, which were research positions. But there were very few academic positions that I was even aware of that were looking for people at the time. I was fortunate; I found out about one at West Virginia University, and applied, and got chosen. Usually people do a post-doc before applying for an academic position, but I went straight from graduate student to assistant professor at West Virginia University without going through the postdoc route. That was fine with me because it was exactly what I wanted to do.
What was exciting about that to you? How did this fulfill some of your broader ambitions at that point?
Oh well, I was going to be a professor. I was going to be able to teach students. I was going to be able to work on creative things that I enjoyed doing. I knew there was an expectation I had to publish and get funding, of course, but I was thrilled with the opportunity. And I considered myself quite lucky, because a number of my peers, graduate students, were hoping also to get academic positions, and were not very successful initially. So they went the postdoc route, or they went right into industry, or working for the government. I'm trying to remember who else—of my close graduate student friends, I don’t know if anybody else went right into an academic position. Again, there were very few positions that I was aware of at the time.
Fred, when did it start to dawn on you that there was this community of physics education researchers out there? When did, for example, the AAPT start to get on your radar?
Okay, so now I have some more to talk about. I want to say upfront that I consider myself really fortunate because I was there at the beginning.
So, orient me first chronologically. What’s the beginning? Roughly what years are we talking about?
Okay, so I have to go back a little bit—my time at West Virginia University. I did try to set up my experimental apparatus and work on it for a time. I remember all kinds of practical and logistical problems with the apparatus. And over about a two-year period of time I lost some confidence in being able to actually get this thing to work. And I lost interest, to be honest.
At the same time, I became the department’s representative on a new kind of university-wide project where there was an interest in designing a brand-new interdisciplinary course across the whole campus looking at how different disciplines engage in gathering and using evidence. It was all about the nature of evidence and the various evidential strategies used by people in various disciplines. And I was a member from the Physics Department who became involved in that. So, for a couple of years I spent a lot of time interacting and collaborating with a bunch of creative people from different departments. We were under the direction of an engineering professor named Charles Wales who had invented a pedagogical approach called guided design, which was a strategy to guide students through the various stages of solving a real-life problem.
I think there were maybe 15 or 20 faculty members, from that many different fields, involved in developing this new course—and we each designed a module involving an imaginary scenario where students would be working with an expert to solve a problem that was some disciplinary in nature. And in working with this expert, while solving a problem, students would learn some content as well as the evidential strategies that are used in that discipline. So I designed a physics project. There was also a chemistry project. There were lawyers. There were English professors. There were psychologists. You name it. Students would choose a few such projects to work on during the semester course.
And it was such an exhilarating experience for me, and I think it introduced me to a whole new idea about what I could do-- be a designer of innovative ways of teaching, and innovative ways of helping students learn. I think that experience, which started during my first year at West Virginia University, got me really interested in that. Shortly after, I began thinking about writing wrote some proposals to design new courses in the Physics Department.
At the time, in the early and mid 1970s, the educational funding opportunities at the National Science Foundation was very limited. The only way to get money in science education was to do something related to either pre-service teachers or in-service teachers. That was it. There was certainly no money at the time for doing education research at NSF, and physics education research was, at best, in its infancy. And so I wrote some grants to NSF, had some success and got funding. The proposals were focused on designing some courses for prospective elementary teachers. And then a few years later, I became aware of people doing research in what was called physics education research and decided—and this would have been around 1980—I decided I wanted to get involved in that.
Part of that decision was dictated by my interest in helping students learning physics, but part of it was that there was something about doing research, doing something new, discovering something new that you can share with a community, that I only had a small sample of as an experimental physicist, but wanted to have that same experience in this new field that I loved, physics education. So physics education research seemed to fit the bill.
And at the time, in 1980, there were three universities that had active departments that were doing this work. One was at the University of Massachusetts. John Clement and his colleagues were there. There was the University of California Berkeley, where Fred Reif was doing some work. And there was the University of Washington, where Lillian McDermott had started a physics education group. Because this was my sixth year at West Virginia University, it was time to apply for a sabbatical. After doing some checking into these three places, I decided I wanted to ask Lillian McDermott if I could come spend a year at the University of Washington to kind of learn the trade. And she, as always, was very inviting, and said, “We’d be happy to have you come.”
So my whole family, my wife and two daughters and I, drove to Seattle, to the University of Washington, in the summer of 1981, and ended up spending two years there. Lillian had just recently graduated a doctoral student in PER, David Trowbridge, who had done some work in investigating students’ understanding of velocity and acceleration in one dimension. I think he had written, with Lillian, the first paper that really was focused on what we would call physics education research, and it was published in the American Journal of Physics. So that had just happened when I arrived.
And her group—there was other graduate students there—used a particular kind of methodology to do their work. It was called the individual demonstration interview methodology, and was based in part on the clinical interview methodology from psychology research. The idea was that if you want to find out how students are thinking about a particular phenomenon, you invite a student in—this is a one-on-one interview—you have a table, and on the table you have some kind of apparatus. And you and the students are sitting side by side, looking at this apparatus, and you ask “what if” kinds of questions. For example, you might ask, “What do you think will happen if I changed this, or if I did this, or if this happened?” And then after the student made a prediction—this was the same method used all the time—then you would would say something like, “Ah, that’s very interesting. Now, how are you thinking about that?” And then you would shut up. [laughs] And the student would talk, and that was the interesting stuff.
I had made a little printed sign, small so the student couldn't see it, but I could look at it from time to time as a reminder. The sign said something like, “The purpose of the interview is to find out how students are thinking about the physics, not for you to teach them anything.” And so this was not a teaching interview. We would ask questions based on the demonstration, and the student would talk. And all we did as an interviewer is we would try to help clarify the student’s thinking without giving any hints as to whether we agree or disagree with what they were saying. And so that was the strategy. And I mean, Lillian’s students used that for many, many years, in all different areas of physics.
I became interested in geometrical and physical optics, especially geometrical optics. I guess I eventually became well known in that area, because I worked on it for many years, published a bunch of papers. But I would have an apparatus consisting of a light source, lens and screen set up on the table so there would be a sharp image seen on the screen, and I would ask students, “How would things change if you moved one of the items but kept the others where they were?” It was so interesting, David, to listen to the students’ predictions and how they were thinking. And I did lots of interviews. So that was kind of the qualitative methodology that Lillian used in her group. But then, after interviewing a bunch of students and collecting their responses—there’s only a finite number of different ways they would think about things—we would develop a survey to administer to a larger population of introductory physics students to see what they thought. The survey consisted of some multiple-choice questions that were adapted from the questions we had asked during the individual demonstration interviews, and the choices would be the various ways of thinking that we had identified in the interviews. I worked on this in a few different topical areas for the two years I was there, using both the qualitative and quantitative methods.
Fred, let’s zoom out for a second here, because it’s so important to get the broader understanding. In the mid 1970s, as there are small, isolated groups around the country who are thinking about physics education, but are not aware of likeminded people out there, and then of course what Lillian is doing at UW becomes this gravitational center. So generationally, academically, scientifically, what do you think explains this multiple bubbling up of this interest almost before it converges? What’s the through line here, in the mid-1970s?
Well, there were people in science education, often working in education departments, who were interested in collecting data on how students were thinking about different ideas in life science and physical science, and maybe it was called science education research, I don’t remember. I don’t think the word “physics education research” was used. Then Lillian came to the University of Washington. I know she worked with Arnold Arons for a while, and then she kind of formed her own group. And she was very interested in designing curricula for minority students at the time, to try to help them become successful as physics students at the university. I think that’s where she started.
How she began thinking about wanting to investigate how students were thinking about physics ideas, David, I don’t know. I don’t recollect—well, we had many conversations, but I don’t know if I can put my finger on exactly what caused her to start. Now, part of this, as I think about it now, is that at that time, Arnold Arons was very interested in using the Socratic dialog way of teaching, where he would—I mean, his style was to help students learn by having a Socratic dialogue with them, back and forth, one on one. Lots of questions, responses and more questions. He did a lot of that. And maybe since Lillian was familiar with that work and maybe was involved in some of that herself, that kind of was the impetus to get her started with her own approach. That is, to engage students in a conversation, but hold back the teaching part where you try to teach them specific information, and just focus on how they were thinking. So I think she may have shifted from Arnold’s experience—I think—to this sort of alternative way.
And I think at that time John Clement at the University of Massachusetts was doing some work in students’ understanding of mathematics. He was particularly interested in students’ interpretation of graphs. This was, I think, in the late 1970s, early 1980s. So that kind of coincided with when Lillian became involved. But I don’t think too many other folks were doing this work in physics education. Then, in January of my second year there, so this would have been January of 1983—we attended an AAPT meeting in New York I believe, where Lillian had organized a session, an invited session, focusing on physics education research, where she had some of the only people doing this kind of work come speak. I remember she had invited Fred Reif from UC Berkeley, and also Jill Larkin, who at the time was at Carnegie Mellon. I don’t remember who else also spoke. But they were all talking about their work in physics education research. Because at that time, she had for a couple of years been working on physics education research herself at UW. She was aware of some other people in the country doing this. And so she thought—this was one of her many great ideas—of having an invited session focusing on that area.
I could be wrong, but I believe that was the first organized PER session at an AAPT meeting. And there was a huge interest, I remember. A big audience, lots of questions that were asked. And I think it was pretty clear that this germinated kind of an interest in the community that AAPT should do more of this kind of thing. And a good mechanism for that, as you're probably aware, is through committees. And shortly after that, Lillian organized the Physics Education Research Committee at the AAPT, and she served for several years as its first chair. I think the idea for having that committee came about because of the PER session. And one of the functions of committees is to organize sessions at meetings. So this is how it started, in the early 1980s. I was there, so I was very happy. [laughs]
Fred, to go back to your track, was two years the max that you could be on leave?
Yes, I was there one year on sabbatical, and I really wanted to stay a second year at the University of Washington. There was more to learn. I think during my second year, Lillian went to NSF, as a rotator, and she would fly back to Seattle from time to time. But she was not around a lot. And during that second year, I did some more work in other topical areas using the same approaches I had used the first year, but I also wrote my first proposal to the National Science Foundation focusing on physics education research. I remember that the chair of the Physics Department at West Virginia University was not happy that I wanted to stay a second year, but he reluctantly allowed me to do it. I couldn't have stayed any more. Two years was the maximum. But it was sufficient for me. I learned about doing research in PER, I wrote that proposal, and it got funded. I was very fortunate.
I went back to West Virginia for two years. I had a couple of master’s degree students, and we did some work investigating student understanding in thermodynamics, kinematics, and optics. And then I heard about a new position at San Diego State University. They had just established a Center for Research in Math and Science Education. This would have been 1985. And they had quite a few members in the mathematics department who already had a national reputation in mathematics education research, and they wanted to bring in another person in science to build up that part of the math and science education center. I went out there for an interview, and it worked out. And I've been there ever since. I started in 1986.
Fred, to go back to West Virginia, what were some of the reactions from your fellow faculty members as you were doing things that might have been perceived as “not really physics”?
Well, here’s the thing, David. And this is true over my entire professional career. I was able to be successful at what I did—getting grants, collaborating, doing research and working on a large number of different projects—pretty much by myself at my own institution, but always in collaboration with many people at other institutions. And so, I think the attitude of faculty in my own department varied from “What the heck is this guy doing? He’s not really doing physics” at one end of spectrum to “Let him be,” to a recognition that I'm bringing in money to the department. Because even at West Virginia University those last two years, and then ever since I came to San Diego, every year I was successful at having grants. So I brought in money. And it’s hard to argue against that, right? And so, I think they always tolerated me [laughs], if you wish.
Fred, perhaps this is naïve, but besides the money, was there anybody who appreciated that you were involved with work that might ultimately produce better physicists? In other words, better physics education does have better outcomes in terms of physics research.
I believe the answer is yes. There were a number of people who felt that way, and we had some discussions. But I don’t think anybody came to me and said, “We are so glad that you're here, because you're helping to generate better opportunities for the physicists of tomorrow.” I don’t think I got that. And I was not privy to my promotion and tenure discussions at West Virginia University, where that might have been discussed. When they were deciding whether to give me tenure and to promote me, that must have been a real interesting discussion! [laughs] Because that is where they have to decide whether they want this guy to continue. Now, nobody ever told me all the intricacies of those discussions. I do know that there were mixed feelings in the department, but I believe the majority felt that what I was doing was valuable. And so I did get my tenure, and I was promoted. When I went to San Diego State, there was the Center for Research in Math and Science Education, and so there were faculty in all these other departments on the campus who had very similar interests. And so there were always people who I could talk to about these things, who I assumed respected what I was doing and valued what I was doing. And so that was kind of a nice environment to be in.
So Fred, coming to San Diego State, was your academic identity at this point fully in PER?
Yes. And I was hired because I would be a working member of this new Center, which had just begun the year before.
Which was born interdisciplinary? That was the idea from the beginning?
Math and science education, yes.
Producing ultimately what? High school teachers? Is that the focus?
No, its main focus was on faculty carrying out research in math and science education, as well as professional development activities. Many of the faculty who were associated with the Center were involved it investigating how people learn math and science. And it was elementary, middle school, high school, and college. There were also a lot of people who worked on professional development projects, as well as curriculum development projects. But all those projects usually had research components. So the research was carried out in the context of professional development workshops, or the development of curricula, which I was very involved in.
But the focus was—that’s the name—it was not the Math and Science Education Center, or the Center for Math and Science Education; it was the Center for Research in Mathematics and Science Education. So the focus was always on research. And we developed, shortly after I came, a new doctoral program jointly with UCSD. Because at the time, California state university campuses could not offer their own independent doctoral programs, so they had to be done jointly with a University of California campus. So that’s one that we set up in math and science education.
What was valuable about having colleagues in other scientific and mathematical disciplines, given the fact that you were all interested broadly in the issue of education research?
Well, we had colloquia and we had money to bring in speakers, first of all, which was good. I think the Physics Department itself probably would not. They might bring in one person. But we had an ongoing colloquia series at the Center, and we brought in people from different areas in math and science education. Also, each year we invited what we called a distinguished speaker come and spend a few days with us, alternate years between math and science. So being part of a center allowed a lot of this activity to take place.
Also, I had a few people come spend sabbatical years with me. I don’t think they would have come to West Virginia University, to Morgantown, West Virginia, but San Diego was a very attractive place. So partly because of some of the work that I was doing, but I'm sure partly because of where I was, I had some people from universities in other countries come and spend up to a year working with me. So I had a lot of opportunity for interaction with others in similar fields. I also had doctoral students, who were part of our new doctoral program, working with me on projects. The Center was just a very good atmosphere for doing creative work. And I never had any problems with people suggesting that maybe I should change course somehow. It was never an issue.
Fred, when did students start using personal computers, and what may have been the impact on the issues as you thought about them, with regard to physics in education?
Okay, so I'll go back a little bit on that. When I was on Sabbatical at the University of Washington—this would have been 1981—that’s when the first IBM personal computer came out. And then, two or so years later Apple came out with its first Macintosh computer. And the University of Washington was one of the campuses that was part of a consortium where they got a lot of these first machines to try out in various classes. And I remember being blown away, going to a demonstration with a Macintosh and all its graphics software and everything, at what its capabilities were. I think, right away I had an interest in seeing how, figuring out ways how technology could enhance the learning of physics.
Now, a few years earlier in the late 1970s when I was at West Virginia University, I had mentioned to you before that I got some funding from NSF to establish some new courses. I also got funding to establish a science activity center. And what I did at the science activity center is I purchased several computers, personal computers. At the time, the computers I purchased were from a company called Terack—T-E-R-A-C-K. I think they went out of business a few years later and I don’t think anyone has heard of them. It was a strange choice, to get these Terack computers, instead of the IBM or Apple computers, but there was a reason why I did it. At that time, Arnold Arons, working in collaboration with Alfred Bork, who was a computer scientist at the University of California Irvine, had developed computer software programs that followed the Socratic dialogue technique that Arnold Arons had made quite famous. And so they designed these programs that would engage individual students in conversations [laughs] about physics. There was no audio, just text. The programs were originally designed to run on large machines, but they made some agreement to modify their programs to run on the Terack personal computer. A few years later, they also ran on Apple and IBM machines, but at the time, only Terack. And since I had the money that year and had to spend it, I decided to get those computers, and I installed them in the activity center. Students come in and used those personal computers to go through these programs, and I would watch what they were doing. So that was my first experience with students working with personal computers, but not the personal computers that most people used. The computers were Teracks. It was kind of odd.
Now moving forward a number of years, when I went to the University of Washington on sabbatical, computers were not used very much in science education at that time. We used computers mostly to write manuscripts, if you wish, for publication. It was not until a little bit later, a few years later in my career when I was at San Diego State University, where I began to figure out ways of using the personal computer with supplemental kinds of technology to help with students learning physics. And that became a huge part of my career and my work, for over a decade or more, seeing how computer technology could enhance the learning of physics. My first experiences, ten years or so before, had been watching students work on the Socratic Dialog programs using the Terack computers.
When I went back to West Virginia University after my Sabbatical, I don’t remember using computers in the research that I was doing. It was still mostly doing student interviews around real apparatus. But then when I went to San Diego State University in 1986, and shortly thereafter I got a grant where I hooked up a videodisc to a computer. I think the project I was working on was called “Making the Invisible Visible.” The idea was that students could enhance their learning about some science phenomena if they simultaneously received information coming into the bran from actual physical phenomena and various diagrammatic representations of that phenomena. And so what I did is I had students look at videos of experiments and then they had the capability of drawing on top of it various physics representations, right on top of the actual physics apparatus. So it was a way of helping students make direct connections between the physics representations and the real world phenomena that they were accounting for. That was my first grant of this type. And then afterwards I worked on many different projects using computer technology to enhance the learning of physics.
Fred, I want to ask a very broad question that I think will inform our subsequent discussion on these issues, and that is, with regard to curriculum development and teacher professional development, where do you see these lines of inquiry as discrete, and in what ways are they interwoven, for physics education research?
To answer that question, I want to first talk a little bit about a shift in my own thinking, and that is that my so-called training in PER at the University of Washington and my first few years even at San Diego State were directed towards working with individual students. I was interested in helping individual students learn physics. So I was looking for tools that individual students could work on. This in part, I think, was because I had this strong desire of explaining physics to students, and I wanted to use some of the technology to be helpful in doing that.
But after a couple of years at San Diego State University, I slowly shifted my interest and what I wanted to do, away from focusing explaining things to students and helping individual students learn, and to beginning to think about designing tasks that small groups of students would grapple with and try to figure things out, and to observe the groups engaged in that process. So, a shift from focusing on explaining or telling and helping individual students learn physics, to trying to understand how small groups of students can come to figure things out for themselves, for example when trying to figure out an experiment. And during this time we developed a lot of computer simulations where students could explore representations of phenomena. So that was a shift. And a lot of that took place while I was developing new curricula.
Again, when I say I was developing, it was always in collaboration with other people. But we developed a lot of curricula over, I don’t know, 15, 20 years. We worked on many projects. They all shared in common the development of curriculum materials that were very student-focused and provided opportunities for students to develop ideas themselves. And I saw technology as a vehicle to help that process. And from a research point of view, I became very interested in how students in the group develop deeper understanding themselves, how the group learns using the technology. And so I started videotaping groups as they were struggling, using these techniques, with actual apparatus and computer simulations that I had developed as part of the curriculum that we were using in the courses that I was teaching.
And so the shift—the research involving technology was always in the context of the curriculum that I had helped developed, and also in a lot of the professional development projects that I was involved in. We offered workshops for teachers using the curricula materials, the apparatus and the computer simulations we had developed and were using in the courses for prospective elementary teachers. And we were also interested in how the teachers were learning physics, and so we videotaped many of them working on tasks and trying to understand how they were learning. So I became very involved, and some people thought I had become known as the person who was very involved in using video as a technique to study the process of learning.
So in the mid, late 1980s, the early 1990s, even within the physics education community, there was a shift from focusing on individual learning, and measuring that with pre and posttests before and after some kind of intervention, whether it’s a course or a series of activities. I wasn’t so interested in just the pre and post to measure their learning. I was more interested in the process that happened in between, how the students, how the groups of students, come to change the way they were thinking about physics.
Fred, what is so critical about this connection, as you see it?
Because the process of learning is important. Because if you're going to improve instruction, for example, you can’t just know whether a strategy was successful by looking at the end point and comparing it to the initial situation. You have to understand how it happens. And so, I know my own technique, when we designed new materials or software, which we designed a lot of, we would always videotape students working with the materials. We would always look at the video to see if and where students were having problems, and that’s how we decided how to improve things. We would either make a change in the curriculum materials, perhaps re-writing the activities or designing new ones, or change some of the features of the software. This was always in the spirit of first seeing if there was a lack of something, if there was a problem in the learning process, which we only knew if we watched it happen in real time. And we videotaped lots of groups, and we used those videos to guide changes. But in general, what was most important is that we used the video as a means to study the process of student learning. And I think others were interested in doing these so-called learning process studies. It wasn’t just the work that I was doing.
Fred, over the course of your career, have there been different segments between K through 16 that you've been focused on, at any given point? In other words, are there some years when it’s more college level, some years where it’s more elementary, middle school, high school? Is it all mixed up for you, or do you try to segment them out?
I wouldn't say mixed up at the same time. I mean, I've been involved—I'm trying to think. I mean, over the years, looking at all the projects that I've been involved in, and there were many—they involved elementary teachers, elementary students, middle school students, middle school teachers, high school students, high school teachers, college students, college professors. And I think I went back and forth, over the years, with the various kinds of projects. Different things would interest me. And often, usually projects would involve maybe a professional development component, a materials development component, and a research component. I rarely had projects that were all just one thing, if you wish.
Fred, what were some of the forums or lines of communication where you would be getting feedback from teachers themselves about what was working, what was not working?
Oh! Well, a lot of that happened in the piloting of our materials. Now, this has changed recently, but initially, we used this kind of dissemination model where when we developed curriculum, there would be a team of us, which would consist of outstanding physics teachers, physics educators. We would make our first attempt [laughs] at developing something, a curriculum. We would be knowledgeable about the research that had been done by others and ourselves, and we all had lots of teaching experience. We would make our best attempt to develop some curriculum. And then we would engage a group of 10, 15 faculty members or teachers, depending on the subject matter, to try it out in their classrooms, and to give us feedback. And then we would change the materials accordingly, based on the feedback. So I guess you’d call this process the pilot phase of curriculum development. And we always took that really, really seriously.
But as I mentioned before, we also, our own research team, we always videotaped students, using the materials. So we were able to identify where there were holes. No matter how wise we thought we were at the beginning, we recognized that we hadn’t anticipated certain things. So we figured out how to make it work at our own institution, and then through the piloting phase, we figured out how to make it work to the extent possible, at other institutions, where none of us on the original development team were teaching the course. And we had good feedback for that.
Now, the project—at some point in our interview, I’d like to talk about the project that I've been working on for the last several years, which has sort of taken this all to the next level, if you wish. But we can get to that at some point.
Before we get to that, Fred, sort of an overall question that makes all of this possible, and that is, the formative support of the NSF. So the first question there is, is there a particular program officer at the NSF who gets it, who recognizes the value of this, who’s championing PER generally? Is it an institution-wide appreciation? How does this work that accounts for NSF’s deep and sustained support for you and your colleagues’ work over the years?
Well, over the years, NSF started new programs. So remember, when I first got into this, the only programs involved pre-service teachers or in-service teachers, the old teacher workshops that were very famous in the 1980s. That’s all there was. But after my Sabbatical I did receive my first grant involving research in physics education and, I think, Ray Hannnapel was the program officer, and he was really supportive. But then there were programs that looked—I don’t remember all the names, but they became things like there was a Division of Undergraduate Education that was formed at NSF in the EHR Directorate, and over the years there were programs for improving laboratories, and there were programs explicitly for improving undergraduate courses, and also for developing curricula for K-12.
And I remember one of the program officers was Gerhard Salinger, who—I guess he was just really supportive of the work that I was doing and was very helpful to me. Now, he alone, of course, can’t decide whether you're going to get funded or not, but the program officer does have a say, at some level, when your peer reviews get pretty good results and there’s sort of competition between some possible projects that are going to get funded, the program officers at that time, and I don’t know if it’s the same story now, the program officers can make a pitch. And I know that he was really supportive for a lot of the projects that I got funded, for the middle school projects and the projects involving materials for elementary students.
But there were other program officers who were very supportive for the projects that involved developing curriculum for pre-service teachers at the university. If I remember correctly, Joyce Evans and Joe Stewart, come to mind. And Janice Earle was a program officer for our research project involving elementary teachers, and she was very supportive. And, of course, the supportive program officer helped, but also were the people I collaborated with. Although I was PI on a dozen or so projects, I always collaborated with very good people, very creative people. I consider myself a lucky person to get to know—since I was involved in the PER field at its inception, I got to know a lot of the big players, people who were well known. They shared a spirit of creativity and passion for helping students learn. And I was lucky that they were always willing to serve on projects with me. And I think I attribute any success I have to the fact that I had those people, those good people, work with me on the projects. And that has continued to today.
So Fred, let’s move on to your more recent work, the things that you've been doing over the past seven to ten years. Tell me how that started.
I'm going to back-track a little bit because it’s going to lead into that. In the early 2000s I was involved in a project that was called the Constructing Physics Understanding project, or the CPU project. And it was with major funding from NSF. It was to design materials, modules, to be used by elementary teachers during workshops, and middle school teachers, and high school teachers in their courses. As part of that project, we designed curriculum materials and simulation software. I was very proud of both of those parts. The curriculum materials were designed around a pedagogical strategy which focused on eliciting students’ ideas, and then providing them the tools to build on those ideas so that eventually they would evolve to be very close to the ones that were recognized by the scientific community. This took a majority of the time. And then there were activities where students applied these newly developed ideas to new scenarios, to new physical situations. So that was kind of the pedagogical structure, strategy of the materials.
Now, to help students in this middle stage of developing ideas, we not only had them do lots of hands-on experiments, but we developed what I consider to be a very powerful suite of physics simulation software which was pretty new at the time. Now, this predates the PhET software that was developed at the University of Colorado, which was an outstanding set of computer simulation programs to help students explore their ideas in various domains of physical science. This predates that. We developed software in different topical areas of physics, all which had in common students’ ability to set up simulations of various physical situations and then to make use of various representational techniques to help them—this goes back to what I did with the videodisc, but a much more sophisticated version of it—to give them the opportunity of making connections between the conceptual ideas and the real-world phenomena. So this was really important, because I'm getting to what occurred later.
To give you an example of what I'm talking about, in electric circuits, we designed a program where students could set up circuits with light bulbs and other devices, close the circuit with a switch and see what happens. That’s not so original. But one of the more complicated ideas in electric circuits is the idea of potential difference across various components. And so what we designed was the ability for the program to color code the wires [laughs], different colors, where the highest potential in the circuit, near the positive side of the battery, would be red, and the lowest potential, near the negative side of the battery, would be blue. I think we got the idea of coloring the wires from some work that either Mel Steinberg or Bob Morse had done, I can’t remember exactly who. And then we would have an image of the color spectrum from 400 to 700 nanometers on the screen to serve as a visual guide for the students. And around the circuit, as the wires went into and out of different circuit components, the color of the wires would change, representing the relative potential energy drop across that component. The program did this automatically. So as the students would change things in the circuit, let’s say causing the electric current to change, they would see light bulbs get brighter or dimmer, or meters have higher or lower readings, and they were also able to see the colors of the wires change in different parts of the circuit. And this helped them associate the difference in colors across circuit elements with potential drops, so the bigger the potential drop, the more far apart in the spectrum the two colors. So this was a visual way of helping students make a connection, I think—we think—between changes in potential and the resultant changes in current, for example, in the circuit, which they could also measure with meters. So that’s one of 20-some programs, one example, where we had done that.
In the static electricity programs, when students would rub different insulators together on the screen, the surfaces in contact would change color. They would become red or blue, depending on whether the surfaces became positive or negative. And the thickness of the coloring was related to the amount of excess surface charge. So the computer program calculated all this, but the way the students saw it is they would see they would see the surfaces become colored when they rubbed the materials together, and the more they rubbed the thicker the coloring, up to a point. And we saw that as a way of helping students make connections between rubbing surfaces and the resulting surface phenomena in static electricity, which is difficult for them. We also had both metallic and insulating elements, and they could be polarized, and students were able to experiment with all that. So that was another simulation.
We had a whole bunch of different simulations, and for each one, we had different strategies, all of which were designed to help students make connections between visual representations and the physics phenomena themselves. And the students were able to play around with the visuals of apparatus that were on the computer screen and see what happens. My first doctoral students did their dissertations on investigating groups of students working with these materials and these simulations, and figuring out how the students were thinking and how they came to change their ideas. So that was the first really big project that I was involved in.
Unfortunately, the simulations were programmed by a group in Russia, because at the time that’s all we could afford. They were a lot less expensive than hiring local programmers, and they were very, very good, so we got really powerful simulations. But they were written in Java around some proprietary core, and over time, as versions of Java changed, they no longer worked. Operating systems changed, both with IBM and Apple, and we were never able to reconnect with the original group who did the programming. And because part of the programming was proprietary, we couldn’t hire others to do it. So you can get them to run today on a Mac using a special program, but it’s no longer usable by a lot of people. I had worked on that project for many years.
So those computer programs were designed to be used with individual modules in various topical areas. They were standalone modules; teachers could use any number of them and combine them in any order. And then the next big set of projects that we worked on, starting in the early 2000s and continued until a few years ago, was developing curricula for entire courses, especially for students who wanted to become elementary teachers. And the first curriculum became known as Physics & Everyday Thinking. I don’t know if you've heard about that.
I haven’t. And Fred, on that point, let me ask first about the name. What does the name signify as you were conceptualizing the program? Everyday thinking, physics—what’s the connection? What were you after there?
It’s a nice story. The original name—I think I have the book on my book shelf—the original name was Physics for Elementary Teachers, which we called the PET project. P-E-T, PET for Physics for Elementary Teachers. So the name PET appeared everywhere in the curriculum. After about a year or so, a number of people said, “We’d like to use this in other situations, not just courses for prospective elementary teachers, but the name kind of puts students off, because they think it’s only for elementary teachers.” So we had to come up with a new name but still wanted to keep the P-E-T acronym—PET—but no longer had “elementary teachers” in it. So we came up with Physics & Everyday Thinking. That’s the story of how that title came about.
But of course, it makes a lot of sense, right? It wasn’t just done to remove ‘elementary teachers’ from the title. It was also done because our whole task here was to help students make connections between their everyday thinking and physics ideas, the physics ideas we wanted to help them learn. So that new name was used from then on. And then we developed a version called Physical Science & Everyday Thinking. Those two versions were intended for small groups of students learning in studio-style settings. And then later we developed a version for lecture courses using a very similar pedagogy, but where obviously students couldn't do experiments easily in a 200 or 300-seat lecture room. So we came up with little bags of materials that you could hand out and distribute, and have students do simple experiments on a desktop. And we incorporated other kinds of strategies and techniques that could be used by instructors to help students learn in that environment. So all that development took place over about 10 or 12 years.
And was it being adopted quickly? I mean, how fast were these courses gaining traction in the field?
I think we had up to maybe 70 adoptions around the country. Now, at the same time, there was also another program that Lillian McDermott’s team had worked on, which was the Physics by Inquiry curriculum. When I was there on Sabbatical I helped work on one of the modules, so I was pretty familiar with it. [laughs] It’s a really powerful set of curriculum modules, but different, in several ways, from the materials that we were developing, one way of which was in our program, we were making use of these computer simulations, which we saw as a critical, integral part of the experience of students to go along with hands-on experiments.
But the other thing was that there was a lot of individual and small-group responsibility for learning in the Physics by Inquiry materials. I don’t know if you're familiar at all with that curriculum, but students work in small groups from printed materials, which give them lots of prompts, and they talk about it and write down their answers, and then the instructor or a teaching assistant comes around at specific times to check up on their understanding. And that’s kind of the modus operandi of that course, at least it was several years ago. I don’t know if there have been any recent changes in the pedagogical approach.
In our curriculum, which uses a social constructivist kind of pedagogy, students would work in groups, and instructors might walk around and answer questions, but at the end of every activity, there was a public sharing of ideas. Students had to present their ideas to everybody in the class, and they had to come to a consensus on the big ideas. So it was very much driven by small group development and discussion, and whole-class consensus, collaboration. And those were two of the big features that differentiated our style, I think, with what was done by Physics by Inquiry. It’s just a different approach. They were very successful and had high levels of adoption of that curriculum.
Fred, can you tell me a little bit about how these courses aligned with Next Generation Science Standards?
Yes, I can, and it leads me to my last big curriculum development project. So we had Physics & Everyday Thinking, which is pure physics. We had Physical Science & Everyday Thinking, which was physics and chemistry. And we had Learning Physical Science, which was a lecture style version of Physical Science & Everyday Thinking. And those were all designed around the Project 2061 science education standards, which were a set of ideas that they thought was important for students to learn. So those curricula were built around those Standards. But around 2013 when the Next Generation Science Standards were being released, we decided that we were going to make a new version of the curriculum that was going to be designed around the content, the engineering and science practices, and the cross-cutting concepts of the Next Generation Science Standards.
And so we developed a new set of materials that became known as—no surprise—Next Generation Physical Science & Everyday Thinking, or Next Gen PET. And that was a big effort. We developed the student materials, and then lots of supporting materials for faculty. During the early years of the curriculum implementation, among the small group of us who taught those first versions, we videotaped lots of our classrooms. So we made an instructor resource that included lots of video clips of students actually working through different parts of the curriculum. As we had done previously our idea was to focus on a small group and videotaping them as they talked about and came to some agreement on some ideas guided by prompts from the curriculum. And then we videotaped the whole-class discussions that happened at the end of each activity, where the whole class is supposed to come to consensus.
And because this was such a different kind of pedagogy for a lot of instructors, we thought having video clips showing many examples the curriculum in operation, as well as other supporting materials, would be helpful. And so we designed a website with the publisher to do that. That was all geared towards helping students develop those content ideas, practices and crosscutting concepts that are associated with the Next Generation Science Standards. And then, there was some research on how to help faculty adopt or adapt and continue to use these new research-based instructional strategies. Our curriculum would be one example, but there were others. A the research showed that faculty who adapt or begin to adapt some of these, especially ones that require real shifts in their roles as teachers, that it was challenging for a lot of faculty, for lots of reasons that could be both personal as well as institutional, and consequently why a lot of these faculty gave up continuing to use the new strategies.
And I think what was recognized is that for these adaptions of research-based instructional strategies to be successful and long-lived, one of the things that faculty needed was significant, ongoing support. And so with that in mind, a team of us wrote a proposal to the NSF. It got funded in 2016. The project was to establish a faculty online learning community that we call Next Gen PET FOLC. It currently has about 50 members in it and has been going on for over four years. And all the faculty joined the FOLC with a commitment to use this curriculum in their courses.
The faculty meet in smaller groups of ten to twelve. All the meetings are videotaped, and we've archived them all. As part of the research effort, our project research team looks at some of these videos, trying to understand how the faculty members’ thinking about teaching and learning changes over many years of implementation of the curriculum and involvement in the community. We don’t have access to what they do in the classroom. We only have access to what they talk about in these meetings that occur generally every few weeks, and over several years. So, we've been able to monitor those meetings, and some of our research efforts have been to try to understand and document how faculty change.
In the last couple years, a graduate student and I have been focusing on the facilitators of these meetings. These are university faculty who lead these meetings. Now, they come in with hardly any experience leading university faculty groups who are trying to enhance their skills in teaching and learning. They have almost no prior experience, so they learn on the job. What they do have, and how they were chosen, is they had implemented earlier versions of the curriculum with success. So they had some pedagogical expertise, and they knew some of the struggles that faculty who were starting to use it might have. So that’s how they began. But because this community has been going on for four years, all its members are going to eventually develop expertise in implementing the curriculum. And so the issues that the faculty discuss and talk about will change over time, and therefore, the facilitators, the people who run these meetings, you would assume, their facilitation goals and the strategies they use to implement their goals, will also change.
And so, my graduate student and I have been studying this process for a while. We have spent two years [laughs] looking at a case study of one really interesting faculty member facilitator who, over two years has significantly changed how he thinks about his role. Now, the project staff did provide occasional professional development opportunities for facilitators, which it so happens really affected this faculty member. It had a big impact on how he thought about his work. And so we studied him in great detail, and that’s one of the papers that we're writing now and will submit it shortly to a journal. We're also working on just looking at the whole community, what happens to faculty who have four years to work in this community, how do they change in their thinking about teaching and learning?
What has happened now is that the NSF funding is ending this year, and so we, the project leadership team, are backgrounding ourselves. A number of other faculty in the FOLC are taking over leadership roles, and they're going to run the show. And this is going to continue, hopefully, for the next several years. Of course, we have a vested interest in seeing what happens, but we know that we are letting go, just like the parents whose children go off to school, and your influence is finished. So that’s happening right now, as we speak.
Fred, I appreciate the obvious bureaucratic and administrative value in aligning Next Gen PET with Next Generation Science Standards. But more substantively, how are those standards useful in developing the curriculum?
Mostly as a filter. So, in two ways. One, you can’t teach everything. You can’t expect to include material on everything. And so we looked at what’s included in these Standards, and we cut out a lot of stuff from earlier versions of the curricula that no longer are included in the Standards. So for example, when I was talking earlier about this other project, the CPU project, I talked with great pride about the current electricity unit and the simulation, that wonderful simulation with all the colored wires. However, electric circuits play almost no role in the new standards, and so we essentially cut that subject out. What used to be an entire unit in the Physics & Everyday Thinking curriculum no longer exists in this new curriculum, replaced with part of just a single activity. And so that’s one example, but there are lots of others.
Plus we had to introduce engineering design activities. We hired a consultant who had previously designed a lot of engineering design activities, and was involved in developing the Standards, the engineering standards for NGSS. We had him help us design engineering activities to include in Next Gen PET. And so we introduced new things that did not exist in previous versions of the curriculum.
One other thing that I should mention, which is unique about our curriculum, is we had an entire set of materials that’s supplemental to the student materials, that focuses on issues of teaching and learning: how students learn and how teachers teach science. And those materials are complementary to the content-focused materials. They're available on the website. And for those instructors who teach a class for prospective elementary teachers, or who teach a workshop for in-service teachers, while the curriculum materials themselves help the students or teachers learn science, there’s also a set of materials that can be used to help the future or current teachers think about how their students can learn science and how they should teach science. So that’s kind of a unique feature, and it’s a huge set of materials that align with all the content units and it’s available on the instructor resources website. So the NGSS did have a strong influence, both in what content we included, and what we excluded from previous versions, as we adapted this new curriculum.
Fred, just to bring our conversation right up to the present, as you say, these issues are at a moment of transition right now. So that begs the question, why now? What has developed that suggests new directions for the field?
New directions for physics education research, you mean?
Because as you say, these things are all in transition, as we speak.
Right, right. My focus and my group’s focus have now shifted to studying faculty, and faculty change, and helping faculty think about and reflect on teaching and learning. That’s a big shift for myself from—I mean, I've gone through several shifts, right? Individual student ideas, then the process of individual student learning, then small group learning, and now the faculty—university faculty—who teach the students. So that has been my 30 years in the field, the trajectory I have gone through—I should throw in K-12 teachers too, somewhere in the mix.
But now, my big focus is on faculty change. And I think now there’s an interest in institutional change, for example, how do you impact whole departments? There’s this focus on what are called department action teams that people are working on, different vehicles for how you initiate and support institutional change. That’s a bigger issue than student change. [laughs] Faculty change is sort of in the middle, if you wish, between individual student change and institutional change. I'm not involved in institutional change. I'm involved in faculty change. So that’s been my trajectory over the years.
Fred, for you, where is AAPT in all of this? Are they front and center? Have you carved out a little area in AAPT? Is it valuable institutionally? Or not necessarily?
So over my career I've been very active in AAPT, for example, in its committee work. But in AAPT, as you may know, from the very beginning when Lillian back in 1983 had that first invited session, physics education research is recognized now, I guess, as sort of a sub-field of physics. There is a huge physics education research community that is very involved in AAPT. So every meeting has many sessions focused on physics education research, both the theoretical research part, the development of new knowledge, but also how you apply the findings from physics education research to teaching in physics. A lot of sessions are devoted now to that.
There’s also a large number of doctoral programs around the country that offer a Ph.D. in PER. When I got started, there were only a few. Now, I don’t know the number, but there’s a large number of physics departments that have at least one faculty member who identifies as a PER person, and he or she can have students, whether it be undergraduate, masters or doctoral students. So that field has blossomed.
As you know, there now are journals that are dedicated to the field itself. When I got started, all the articles were published in the American Journal of Physics. Now, Physical Review Physics Education Research is one of the major journals that publishes work in this field. There’s also at the end of every summer AAPT meeting, a full one-and-a-half day Physics Education Research Conference, which has grown to many hundreds of people attending. People give talks and present posters and submit papers that are refereed, and if selected they published in the conference proceedings. A lot of submitted papers are turned down, I don’t remember the acceptance rate now, so there are rigorous standards for having articles accepted and published in the Proceedings. So the PERC—P-E-R-C—Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings is another well-established venue for people in this field.
In my recent work, because I'm looking at issues of faculty change, which actually has value not only in physics but in other areas of science—the group that I'm involved in on this new project, we've published several papers in the International Journal of STEM Education. It’s an online journal. And the paper that I said that my graduate student and I are working on, looking at how a facilitator in the FOLC has changed over time, we intend to submit it to that same journal. That journal seems to be a good fit for the audience that we're interested in reaching.
Fred, now that we've worked right up to the present, for the last part of our talk, I’d like to ask a few broadly retrospective questions about your career, and then we'll end looking to the future. So first, let’s just get down to basics, both with the consumers and the producers of the research that’s so important to you. So let’s start first with the students, and I'll ask you to draw a composite answer for all of the ways that you've been following these developments. At various grade levels, from K through 16, what are the best outcomes you're looking for in students long term, who have gone through all of these programs and curricula that you've developed?
[laughs] I mean, there’s the obvious answer, right? A continued love or an enhanced love of science, and a deeper understanding both of science itself and how we come to develop ideas in science. I think that’s true of elementary, middle school, high school, and college. I think there’s both the products of science and how it comes to be developed, the process. I think all the stuff I've worked on is focusing a lot on that, with a lot of attention to the latter. The former is important, but that’s not been the major thing. The curricula I have worked on have always been a vehicle for students to come to understand how we develop knowledge in physics, which of course has a lot to do with asking questions and how to find out answers based on evidence. I so wish in today’s society more people followed [laughs] and believed in that. And I think it’s so distressing to me and a lot of the people that I am associated with, that we see the general population so challenged engaging in evidence-based reasoning.
Which of course has massively negative societal impacts.
Yes. I mean, I don’t want to get into big political things, but the biggest thing that scared me, early on, over the last several years, is the devaluing of evidence-based decisions on issues, of making decisions based on evidence. And of course I've focused a lot on science in my career, but it doesn't have to be just science. It’s devaluing that, and distrust of that process, where people believe and become convinced of ideas that aren’t supported by anything other than what some people are saying. And that has made me feel terrible, so sad. I mean, a lot of my friends are upset about a lot of things that are happening today, but that was the thing that I was most upset about. Because my entire career has focused on making that kind of a goal—in my teaching, my research, my curriculum development, and my professional development activities. And so what is happening today with a certain part of the population goes against that. And to be honest with you, David, I don’t know the solution, the long-term solution.
Well, you can just keep on doing what you're doing. That’s part of it.
You keep on doing what you're doing. You do your part. I would like to believe that many of the students who had the opportunity of learning science using materials that I helped to work on, I like to believe that the teachers that were strongly influenced by materials that I had helped develop, that they’re not part of the population who don’t value evidence-based thinking and evidence-based decision-making. I’d like to believe that, instead, they're the people who are productive members of our society who can make the society move forward in ways that I think are very productive.
Fred, I'll turn now to teachers, and I'll ask a more specific question. Given all of the ways that teachers at every level, from kindergarten through professors, are overly burdened—administratively, with budgets, with too many students—in what ways do you see your programs and curriculum development make their fundamental job easier? How it helps focus them, how it gives them guidance, how it gives them academic parameters, so that they can convey the most important information, in the most efficient and meaningful manner.
Of course, that’s a tough question, David, right? There are so many institutional barriers. Those of us in my field who develop materials and believe in the research on how people learn know that less is better. [laughs] Less is more. In many, many ways. So we try to convey that. And it’s always a challenge, especially with university faculty members—but with teachers at all levels. There’s always the challenge of making the case for avoiding artificial goals in a class, that are just content-focused. The standards, what have you. We try our darnedest, those of us who are in this field that I've been involved in, and I think my colleagues are similarly inclined, we do our best to make a case for the importance and the value of this kind of approach, for helping develop an informed citizenry that’s good for our society.
And since teachers have many other pressures, we try to provide—help teachers—with arguments that they could use with administrations, if you wish, to help them. And to essentially help teachers feel good about the little they can do, the part that they can do. Even if they have to cater to some external pressures to do things, they can also work on doing the best they can with the rest of their job, if you wish, having an impact and influence. And maybe that’s the best that we can do right now.
I think we're going against the grain, against the tide, in society right now. And it’s a hard upward struggle. But a struggle doesn't mean you give up, and a struggle also means that you can look at the light at the end of the tunnel. And it will come in time, that there will be a shift. And I would like to think that the work that our groups that I've worked on and have done will contribute towards that.
Fred, tell me about winning the Millikan Award in 2003, and specifically, what do you feel was being validated by the field and the people whose research was so important to you?
Let me tell you a personal story and then a story about the talk that I gave then. My first wife, Dianne, was very supportive of what I was doing, and she knew I was a hard worker. I worked on what I did many hours and weekends. And I think she tried to respect that, and was very supportive. Unfortunately, she got sick and she passed away just two months before I received the telephone call that I was going to be offered the medal. That was with extreme sadness [laughs] because the person that I would have identified as most supportive of my work and my personal life was not going to be there. So my two daughters came to the meeting, and they were in the audience, which was very important to me.
At that time I was influenced by the work of David Hammer, trying to recognize the importance of students having their own ideas, and to provide contexts where students at all levels from elementary through college can be allowed to let their own ideas develop. Even young students, if you just let them talk, have very creative ideas. And so I wrote about that, and did some work, and I think because of that, in recognition of that and all my work with students and teachers at all levels, helping them to develop ideas, that’s the reason why I was nominated for and awarded the medal.
And so at my presentation, what I chose to do, after I recognized all the people that helped me over the years, is to focus on showing some video clips—I showed video clips of both college students struggling and figuring out things with their own ideas, but I was most proud of showing some video clips of third graders and fourth graders talking about their own ideas. And I remember this one student who was trying to figure out why objects slow down when you give them a push—they don’t just keep going; they slow down and stop—and how can you understand that. And the student created this model in his head of little things on the surface that were clinging to and holding back the object as it was moving, and helping to bring it to a stop, and that was his own invented model for what was going on. And I highlighted that, and I said, “What a wonderful idea!” Because this was the beginnings of the idea of friction, right? Was it the full model? Of course not. But it was the beginning! And it was invented by this student and shared with us and with other kids in the class!
And I remember after my talk was over—and people asked lots of questions, but after my talk was over, a professor came up to me—I'll never forget that—and he said—this was an elderly person, and he said to me, dead serious, he said, “Dr. Goldberg, Professor Goldberg, I don’t understand.” I said, “What do you not understand?” He said, “I don’t understand! Why didn't you just tell the student the answer? Why didn't you just tell him how friction works?” And that’s a symptom, of course, of a broader issue in our society, with professors, who still believe that you gotta tell people for them to learn. So this one individual showed me that I didn't really reach everybody in the audience. That person didn't see the value of the struggle and the creativity that young children have or can have. He only saw that I failed in not teaching him the correct answer. I remember that! This is a long time ago. This is in 2003, that I gave the talk. And I remember—that’s the one thing I remember from my talk, including the questions that came, and the other feedback. So, I always remember that. I always remember the challenges of helping faculty—and for many faculty it is very difficult for them to shift from that way of thinking like I did. I told you earlier on, I started life as a professor with the goal of explaining things to students in as entertaining and clever way as possible. That was success to me. And I changed to seeing success as letting students figure things out for themselves with their own ideas and creativity. So the shift happened for me over a long period of time. And I've always tried in our workshops with teachers and faculty to help them make that same kind of shift.
Fred, to go all the way back to your first faculty position at West Virginia, where you were developing these new interests but you were coming against fellow faculty members who weren’t quite sure what you were doing, didn't understand where this might fit in, a physics department—if you can fast forward and think about your contributions in physics education more broadly among physics professors, a young assistant professor who has the same interests that you did 30, 40 years ago, what are some of the things that you've contributed where their job is easier than yours is? And what are the challenges that they have that might be more or less identical to the ones that you had, when you started out?
Part of that is easy to answer. I'm just one of a big, large community of people in this field. I was there near the beginning, when the field started, lucky me, but I'm one of a large community. And so over time the AAPT has recognized physics education research. NSF has recognized it. There is a general awareness of its value, broadly in the physics education community. That doesn't mean there aren’t individual faculty members or departments that are much more concerned about advances in traditional physics research, theoretical and computational, experimental physics, and to get ahead doing just that. But I think within departments, there is now a much greater acceptance that what I and others like me have done is a valuable contribution.
At the first AAPT meetings, the people who put together the program did not recognize the difference between physics education research and physics teaching. And so initially they mixed them together, in the same sessions. Talks about “how I teach x and y,” and “how I did some research to find out how students think about x and y” were mixed together. They shouldn't be mixed together, because they're not the same. It took many years before we finally got separate sessions at meetings, devoted just to physics education research. So the community itself, the physics education community, has changed over the years.
Young people now are coming out of programs where they can get a PhD in physics education research. They get hired by departments with the expectation that they're going to use systematic methods to carry out research in how people learn physics, at all different levels, and using many different approaches. That situation didn't exist when I was young assistant professor. And so it’s now so much easier. But these young faculty members still have the pressure of having to produce. They still have to publish. They still have to do high quality peer reviewed work. And in many cases, especially at major institutions, they still have to get external funding to support their work. So those things remain. It’s just a lot easier to do it now, because now there exists a community of people with those interests, venues for publication and opportunities for funding that people can actually draw on to do that kind of work, and that did not exist when I started in the field.
Fred, last question, looking to the future. In looking back at your own doctoral students, the first question is, what is the narrative thread that connects all of the graduate students that you've worked with and their attraction to you as a mentor? And what might that tell us more broadly about the future of PER, from the next generation of upcoming scholars?
Well, I was limited in my focus, with my graduate students, on students’ learning of physics, how they can develop deeper conceptual understanding. How one can tools, technology and otherwise, to promote that process. To study how it happens. I did that over much of my career. More recently I have been looking at faculty change.
There are other kinds of questions, probably, about physics learning now. Issues of identity and how to help students become more comfortable learning physics as students, for example, that were not issues of concern when I started in this business. Issues of equity that were not really an explicit focus of work in this field when I got started, are all now extremely important. And so there’s a lot of research, looking at the papers that are published now, that are focusing on these kinds of things, that were just not—they may have been implicitly important and recognized, but certainly not explicitly so, many years ago, when I was working in the field, as a younger professor. So I would think that towards the future, that a lot of work is going to be involving inclusion of students, so more students can become successful in science, and in particular in physics, and how to help that process become more successful for more people. That’s going to be a focus.
With respect to the conceptual understanding focus—I think there was a shift 15 years ago from only investigating introductory physics topics to student learning of more advanced topics in physics. A lot more people have done work in quantum mechanics, other advanced subjects in physics, graduate work in physics. Because many students, whatever the level they are at, could use better strategies to help them become more successful, to develop deeper understandings. And I'm not talking about those gifted students who will learn in spite of whatever we do. I'm talking about the students who are motivated, intelligent, and could benefit from new strategies to help them learn physics, especially at the advanced level. And so that work will continue. And it’s different from what I was doing.
Fred, this has been a terrific conversation. I'm so glad we connected and were able to do this. I’d like to thank you so much.
Well, I appreciate the effort.