Lindsey receives $160,000 NSF grant to research student reasoning in physics

Beth Lindsey standing in front of Greater Allegheny Mark

Beth Lindsey, associate professor of physics at Penn State Greater Allegheny.

Credit: Penn State

MCKEESPORT, Pa. — Penn State Greater Allegheny has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for $160,000 that will go toward research into student learning of physics.

Beth Lindsey, associate professor of physics, is lead researcher for the project. The field is one she is passionate about.

“My love of physics grew out of my love for 'Star Wars' and all things sci-fi,” said Lindsey. Until she was in college, she said, she wanted to go into astrophysics, but then realized she wanted more human interaction. “That helped push me in the direction of teaching, and eventually physics education research.”

The NSF grant was developed to create curricular materials that draw on findings from cognitive science to improve students’ abilities to slow down their reasoning processes and think analytically about physics problems.

“A lot of research has shown that students are able to successfully answer one physics question but then fail to respond correctly to a related question that requires exactly the same reasoning,” stated Lindsey. “Our hope is that by training students to examine their intuitions and engage their analytic reasoning process, we can improve student reasoning in physics, and maybe decrease the gaps between students who enter college with strong and weak backgrounds.”

In addition to its overall goal of improving student learning, the project includes funding for an undergraduate student researcher who will contribute to all phases of the research: design of research tasks, data collection, and analysis.

“The grant pays students for their time conducting research, and can also be used to pay for equipment we might need to conduct the research; in the field of education research, that typically involves things like video recorders, audio recorders, and software for transcription or data analysis,” stated Lindsey.

Student research associates will benefit by performing research that will contribute to various opportunities at the Greater Allegheny campus.

“The students involved as research associates will develop skills in data collection and analysis; familiarity with software like Microsoft Excel and IBM SPSS,” said Lindsey. “They should also have the opportunity to develop their communication skills by presenting at conferences.”

This grant project is funding a collaboration between five institutions that will all participate equally in the project. In total, the five universities will be sharing a grant that is worth $2 million dollars.

“All five institutions will contribute data to the project and collaborate in the design of instructional interventions,” stated Lindsey. “We discuss the analysis and interpretation of data with one another, and plan out the project together.”

The campuses involved with the project provide a diversity of viewpoints, and serve differing student bodies.

“The other institutions involved in this work are actually very different from Penn State Greater Allegheny. They include the University of Washington (in Seattle), the University of Maine, and North Dakota State University. Those three are all the flagship campus of their state university system,” said Lindsey. “At those campuses, graduate students and a post-doc will be contributing to the research, in addition to faculty and undergraduate students. The final institution is Western Washington University, a smaller public university in the state of Washington.”

Lindsey explained that the effects of the grant should extend beyond physics courses.

“Many students take physics courses not just because they need to learn physics content, but also to help develop their reasoning and critical-thinking skills, abilities that extend to all the STEM disciplines and to non-STEM fields as well,” said Lindsey. “This project aims to help students improve their reasoning skills, which should help them as they continue at Penn State and into their career.”

The National Science Foundation grant will lead to improvements in student success at Greater Allegheny, and contribute to the global excellence of campus programs, by improving the teaching of physics at Penn State Greater Allegheny and nationally.