Science Thinking, Practice and Learning Thresholds as Steep as the Hills in Zurich

On Monday, I was the invited speaker for a joint colloquium of science education researchers and students at the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich. Guillaume Schiltz is a faculty member in physics education at ETH Zurich that I had meet a few years ago at the International Conference on Physics Education in Cordoba, Argentina. He invited me to discuss our groups work in Zurich while in Europe this semester.

I gave my “stump” speech about science reasoning and process skills, with results from a few of the studies we’ve been working on. The basic structure of this talk is as follows:
  1. Science thinking and practice is a big deal now in the USA because of the Next Generation Science Standards.
  2. Reformed physics pedagogy doesn’t necessarily work to improve student reasoning and process.
  3. Scientific cognitive ability is correlated to content knowledge learning “potential” and skills such as problem solving.
  4. Explicit instruction is needed with new pedagogies, and we’re working on that!

Point one above is really just part of our motivation, but it is important to discuss the differences between the US STEM educational environment in comparison to the host country’s, since there are some major differences.

Point 2 is our older work, where we have shown that some really great reformed pedagogies that lead to impressive student content knowledge gains don’t really do much for reasoning and process skills. The primary paper for this stuff is here.

Point 3 is some of the really cool new stuff. In particular, we working on a basic model for the novice approach to testing experiments. We’re working based off of a “grounded theory” methodology, and really diving in to see what fresh physics students do when asked to ascertain the truth of a statement. We see about 5-6 basic approaches, and I’ll probably write more on that at another time.

I also presented some work I’m completing with my colleague in Puebla, Mexico Josip Slisko. We’ve been able to show that at least one aspect of problem solving ability is strongly correlated with scientific reasoning ability. Interestingly, the relationship is sigmoidal, meaning students scoring low on reasoning tests do very poorly on particular types of problems, and students that score high do very well. There is no in-between. It’s as if a threshold exists where, once passed, student lose all difficulty with the particular skill application. We’re pretty excited about the result and will be releasing more in the form of a paper currently being prepared. A short conference paper is here.

Point 4 above is what we’re doing in the classroom to effect change in student use of reasoning patterns and specific process skills. Mainly, I talked about what we call “Authentic Research Experiences” and metacognitive tasks.

There were a lot of questions after the talk, with some very good constructive comments and ideas for interesting new directions. I also had the opportunity to meet directly with the faculty at ETH Zurich to see their campus and some of the exciting new physics education research they are working on. Scanning Tunneling Microscopes and Atomic Force Microscopes in the high-school classrooms in Switzerland was pretty cool!

A few interesting observations: Zurich is VERY expensive. Swiss wine is actually very good. And walking in Zurich requires a great deal of cardiovascular endurance. Those hills!

My wife and I had a great time in Zurich and are on our way to Munich as I write this. We’re visiting Munich for some research on beer production (and consumption) and scouting student lab opportunities for a non-majors course we’re developing on the science of brewing. I’m really not making that up. It’s a hard job. 😉

If you are interested in the talk, then the pdf can be found here.

What do you think?