For the love of physics

Rebecca JohnsonRebecca Johnson is crazy about physics, and she wants to spread the love.

The Wheaton senior not only enjoys studying the subject, she also has taught it to middle school and high school students. And that, she says, is a blast.

“Understanding the world around us is an essential part of life,” says Johnson, a physics and mathematics double major from Andover, Mass. “Teaching physics provides me with a chance to spread this enthusiasm and have fun doing it. Anyone who has played with a Van de Graaff generator* knows this joy.”

How did an undergraduate come to teach physics to middle and high school kids? She did it through a summer program called Teaching Opportunities in Physical Science (TOPS).

The six-week program offers eight undergraduate physics majors experience teaching the subject. Hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, TOPS is an initiative of the MIT-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms.

Under the guidance of two professional teachers, TOPS students learn how to design their own lesson plans and teach middle school students at the Museum of Science in Boston. Then they ramp up the course content and teach it to high schoolers.

“I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy it,” says Johnson, who attended TOPS in 2009.

The goal is to provide a positive experience and thereby kindle enthusiasm for teaching physics. That is important, because the United States faces a severe shortage of high school physics teachers, according to a report by the National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics. And the subject is a must if one wishes to pursue a career in science or related fields.

The TOPS staff invited Johnson to return in 2010 as the program’s staff assistant. She critiqued the students’ work, helped them develop their lesson plans, and videotaped them teaching so they could critique themselves.

She clearly has a penchant for teaching. “Since middle school, I have enjoyed helping people with math out of class,” she says. “It has always fascinated me why some people are ‘math people’ and some are not. Then, through the TOPS program, I got interested in physics education.”

For her senior research project, she decided to investigate a topic related to physics education. She spoke with her advisor, Professor of Physics John Collins, who suggested she contact Eric Mazur, a physicist and innovative educator who heads a research group at Harvard. The Mazur Group accepted her for a summer 2010 internship, which she sandwiched around her six weeks at TOPS.

During her stint with the Mazur Group, funded by her Balfour Scholarship, Johnson developed a detailed research proposal. Thinking about “math people” and “non-math people” led her to look at the concept of “perceived math self-efficacy” (PMSE), which refers to people’s beliefs about their ability to “do math.” Not surprisingly, research has shown that PMSE is a reliable indicator of performance in math. Since physics requires some facility with mathematics, Johnson wondered if PMSE might also predict physics performance.

In general, “individuals with a strong sense of self-efficacy are better able to persevere in the face of resistance,” Johnson wrote in her research proposal. “No matter the actual ability of an individual, it can be beneficial for her to raise her perceived self-efficacy.”

Working with Collins and the students in his introductory physics class, Johnson is now investigating the relationship between students’ PMSE and their achievement in physics, as measured by exam scores and other metrics. (Johnson also has developed her own scale for measuring PMSE, having found that the currently accepted instrument is out of date.)

If she does find that PMSE correlates with success in physics, this information could shed light on one of the main issues in physics education. Not many undergraduates take physics, and few excel in it or pursue it as a major.

“Rebecca has developed a graduate-level thesis project to explore one of the most persistent problems in undergraduate science education,” says Julie Schell, Johnson’s advisor in the Mazur Group. “Her hunches about these problems are novel, mature and fascinating…. We are sitting on the edge of our seats to find out what Rebecca will discover in her research, and where she will go next.”

*A Van de Graaff generator produces static electricity that can make a person’s hair stand on end.