Friday, April 25, 2008

All you ever wanted to know about PER but were afraid to ask

Warning:  if you came here looking for style, come back tomorrow. Physics is not particularly stylish. 

What is PER?
Physics Education Research (hereafter known as PER) is a sub field of Physics (just like Plasma Physics or Gravitation Theory). We study how people learn physics, why they have difficulties, what happens on the way to becoming an expert, and how to teach physics better. We build (or borrow) on ideas from many fields, including education, cognitive science, learning sciences, and anthropology.

Do other fields have education research groups?
Sure, there is similar work going on in Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, and Math. People in Education Departments do work in all of these subjects, too, often in Science Education departments. Physics has been around longer (a mere thirty or forty years) than most, though, so we're probably the biggest.
Why do you need a PhD in Physics to do PER? It's not like your detailed understanding of electrodynamics (and I'm not claiming that I have such a detailed understanding) is going to help you figure out how people think about forces.
You don't need a PhD, it's true. Lots of people get a Bachelor's degree in physics and then get a PhD in Education and do really awesome work. But there are some advantages to the Physics PhD: (1) If you want to be a professor in a physics department, they'll expect your degree to be in Physics, not some other field. (2) Getting a PhD in Physics means that you become a part of the physics community, and not the education community. Thus you share (or at least understand) the ideas and practices that physicists value, so that you're teaching the things the community wants taught. Also, other physicists are more likely to take your ideas seriously. (3) One of my advisers makes a good argument that if we care about physics, then we have to care about how it's taught, because that's how the field grows. And if we care, we shouldn't leave the teaching to other people.

What do cameras have to do with physics?
You can study how people think about physics many ways: look at their homework, give them multiple choice surveys, interview them, and more. My group often learns about how people teach or learn by observing them as they are doing physics au naturelle - that is, we videotape them while they are in class or working on homework. Then we analyze the video, looking at who people talk to, the content of what they are saying, their gestures, their tone, etc. 

I hope I have provided you with more that you ever want to know about the arcane subfield, which, for better or worse, is my life.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Not to get all schmaltzy on you...

In three days I'll exchange this view:
for this view:
and I'll be happy because it means I'll be home.

Monday, April 21, 2008

More new specs

Yes, the mountain fresh air seems to have done me in. I'm longing to return to pollen encrusted, pollution filled Maryland. I'm doing my best to vanquish these germs, but it's a bit too early to put up the "Mission Accomplished" banner, except, um, considering when the last one was hung, it's probably exactly appropriate. In the meantime, here's a photo of my newest pair of glasses, my very first pair of frameless glasses. How many pairs can I own, do you think, before I'll have to admit to being the Imelda Marcos of eyeglasses? 

Friday, April 18, 2008


I was going to write this informative little post all about what physics and video cameras have to do with each other, but my immune system has failed me again and I'm only in the office to spread my germs and then leave. (What is it with this place? I haven't been well since I got to Boulder. Andrew is overwhelmed by the whining that accompanies this much sickness.)

So I promise more soon. Now, off to enjoy the sunshiny (not to worry that I'll be spoiled  - it snowed yesterday) and 70 degree day by laying in bed and hacking up a lung.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Please let me be smarter than a camcorder.

I'm happy to report that I didn't get sick, which is great because this left me with lots of time to obsess about work. Since I've been here in Boulder I've had ample opportunity to explore my experimental side. (I'm already well acquainted with my feminine side, thank you very much.) This means that I spend all my time fiddling with equipment and trying to figure out why it didn't do what I wanted it to do.

I'm trying to think of a humorous and entertaining way to describe how I've been TEARING MY HAIR OUT because: The microphone wasn't plugged in. The tape suddenly gets staticy just as someone says something interesting. The microphone only picked up the people sitting right next to it, and not one guy over. Everyone who volunteered to be taped teaches simultaneously, resulting in my sincere desire to give up physics for a while and go into biology, so I can figure out how to clone myself.

The good news (the not so bad news?) is that the semester ends soon, and so Thursday (aka V-Day) is my last chance to make this work. I've got bonus cameras. Fresh batteries. New microphones. A positive attitude and a chipper smile. (Because darn it, I will bend these cameras to my will).

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


There will be no exciting styling news this week, I'm afraid. Work is really, well, work. Which means I'm doing a lot of it. On top of that, I'm not my usual energetic self. One of my flatmates was hug-the-toilet sick this week, and I'm waiting to see if my stomach is merely clenching in sympathy or whether I face the same destiny.

More (hopefully cheerier) posts next week, my dears. 

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Sticky Fingers

In regards to the last post: I really do feel sorry for the driver who almost hit me, but in a man-that-really-sucks kind of way. This is not to say that I am not very grateful that he didn't hit me. 

A word about personal safety from another angle. Expectations regarding personal safety seem to be another West/East Coast cultural difference. In DC, I try to be as careful as I reasonable can. I rarely walk alone at night, even to the grocery store that is just a block away. When we moved into our current house, I asked Andrew to install locks on all the windows, even though we live on the second floor. This was around the time that some guy was sneaking into homes and cuddling up to women asleep in their beds, even (in one case) when her boyfriend was asleep beside her. Add the fact that my county has almost legendary car theft rates and a not too shabby number of murders, and it just behooves one to be careful.

Here, I live in a house that doesn't have locks. Well, the front door has a lock, but no one has a key to it, so the front door is always left open. They leave their laptops in the living room (although I notice all the bikes have locks) and no one seems worried that their stuff is going to get up and go walking. This freaked me out when I first got here. My solution has been two pronged: I took all my equipment to the university as soon as possible, where it is all safely locked up, and each night I tie my door shut. I haven't told my flatmates about that second one, because I'm sure they'd think I'm crazy, but I can't sleep if I'm worried about the crazies that might wander in.