Physics and Engineering Education

I’ve been talking this afternoon with some colleagues from the Faculty of Education here. While FoE is probably best known for teaching school teachers, that’s not all they do. In my particular case, I’ve been interested in how you go about doing research in education – with specific regard here to physics and engineering.

While many of the principles of doing research are the same in Education as they are in science (e.g. maximize your sample set to get better statistics, keep careful track of what you are doing, research things that people want to know about), there are some ways of doing things that don’t often turn up in a run-of-the-mill physics experiment – such as use of qualitative data and ethical considerations. It’s good to know about how to do a piece of research properly before actually doing it.

In my case I’m interested in doing a small piece of research on the way physics students see mathematics – I’ve commented before I believe on how many students seem to think that physics equals stuffing numbers into equations (possibly because of bad teaching) and therefore they think they are good or bad at physics depending on how good they believe they are at maths. To start with, I’ll be interviewing some practising physicists about how they see the interplay between maths and physics working out (any volunteers here?) – then once the students are back I’ll be looking at their opinions on this one. But it’s been useful to get advice from the ‘experts’ in education research, to make sure the research has the best chance of being useful.

What do I mean about being useful?  Probably two things here. First, does it tell me (and others) anything about how to improve the teaching that we offer? In other words, do we give our students the best possible chance of learning physics. Can we improve that learning? Secondly, can it be published? If the answer to the first is yes, then probably the answer to the second will be yes as well. Any reader who works in a tertiary education context will know that publishing is the most important thing they can do to keep their promotion chances high. (One can argue whether that should be the case, but at the moment it is the case). So a well thought-out project in this line should acheve two things at once. How’s that for efficiency?

Actually, it’s surprised me a bit discovering just how much research in Engineering Education has gone on here in the last few years. There’s been some neat little projects – particularly in electronics – for example looking at the way students learn (or don’t)  really difficult concepts – or the way that putting fourth years and first years in the lab together influences the perspective of first years. (My memory on the last one is that it doesn’t – or at least, not in this case, but it was interesting to see it tried out.)  And it’s great – especially for the students – when the outcomes of these projects get fed into the way we teach.




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