Dean Zollman is Professor of Physics at Kansas State University.
He was recently elected a Fellow of the APS for his work in physics education.
This interview was conducted via email from Germany, where Professor Zollman
is currently on sabbatical.
Ed.: First, I wonder if you have any observations about your recent
election to Fellowship?
DZ: Certainly I feel pleased to have received such an honor. The
election of the people whose primary research as been in the teaching and
learning of physics indicates to us that our work is valued by the Society
and that APS considers this type of effort important for physicists to
Ed.: What in your view, is meant by the term "reform" (in
the context of science education)?
DZ: As the word is generally used it should mean to improve the
quality of teaching and learning science. If that is a correct meaning
then reform is what we should always be doing in any endeavor. At present
reform in science education should mean an acceleration in the process
of improvement by applying recent research on how students learn science
and by modifying our approach so that a much larger cross section of the
society finds science learnable, interesting and enjoyable.
Ed.: Is science education reform now occurring in this country?
DZ: Yes, over the past ten years we have learned a lot about how
students learn and some about why they do not learn science. These results
are being applied to the teaching and learning of science. As a result
many people are changing the way that they help students learn. That process
Ed.: What do you see as the principal goals of science education
DZ: There are a range of goals; some are related to content and
others to social issues. Certainly, as teachers we wish to feel that our
students are learning to their maximum potential, and that they are learning
the content well. Most of us think that we can do better, so that is certainly
a goal. More important is the realization that we need to create an environment
in which all types of students feel that science can be accessible to them
and that careers in science are not just for a very narrow part of the
spectrum of people in the U.S. However, we cannot just focus on those who
wish to have careers in science and technology. We need to help create
a scientifically literate society. That is a very difficult one to reach
but extremely important.
Ed.: How will this reform be different from past reforms (e.g.,
DZ: The difference is spelled out rather specifically in the NSF
report Shaping the Future. Present changes in the teaching and learning
of science is aimed at all students. The Sputnik era changes had the goal
of increasing the number of scientists and engineers. It was aimed at those
of us who were likely to make science and technology our careers. Today,
we realize that a technologically literate society is extremely important.
Therefore, we must help all students learn some science and help them understand
what science is.
Another important difference is the changing view of how teaching and
learning relate. In the past the emphasis was mostly on teaching. By that
I mean that teachers presented information and we assumed that students
absorbed it. Now, we realize that students must learn and we need to help
that process happen. The focus is shifting from the subject matter and
the teacher to the student and the process of learning. The change is far
from complete, but I see it happening even in some advanced physics courses.
Ed.: Is reform taking place at the college level? In physics?
DZ: Yes and no. Certainly some colleges, including two-year colleges,
and universities have made significant changes in the way that they teach
the introductory physics course. Only a few have changed the upper division
or graduate courses. While many of the changes have been effective in reaching
the goals set for them, few have been adopted at other institutions. So,
the changes are happening and are having a positive effect, but the rate
of propagation of the changes is rather low.
Ed.: How can faculty be encouraged to "buy in" to reform
can they become engaged in it?
DZ: There are probably as many different answers to this as there
are faculty. Each person needs to have a personal commitment to change.
However, some general ideas do apply. First, a faculty member needs to
be aware of the research literature on student learning of physics. Usually,
the first response is something "but my students are not like the
one in this paper." However, even without repeating the experiment
in any of the physics education research papers, one becomes more sensitive
to the issues addressed in the research just by learning about the research.
I find that I hear my students making statements similar to the ones discussed
in the research. Even without repeating a carefully designed experiment,
I can come to understand that difficulties can be organized and classified.
This realization gives a reason to consider reform.
Further, we each need to examine carefully our goals for any course.
Looking at the goals and asking ourselves why we teach the way that we
do or the topics that we do can lead to an examination of the teaching/learning
To buy into a reform effort the faculty member needs to have a personal
commitment to making a change and a good reason for wanting to do it.
We also need to allow for failure. Throughout the history of physics,
experiments and theories which did not "work" have been a very
important part of our progress. Yet, we seem to be in a position of expecting
all changes in teaching to be successful and to show improvements in student
learning. If a carefully thought out change in teaching fails to meet its
goals, we should examine it to learn why. The process of learning why something
failed and communicating that information to others should be valued more
highly. If faculty realize that not all reform needs to succeed immediately,
more are likely to try to make changes.
Ed.: Do you have any other observations you wish to share with
DZ: When we look at our we teach and how we might change that
teaching, we need to keep in mind that education is a very complex process.
In any educational situation interactions are occurring among the teacher,
the students, the subject matter and the instructional materials. What
works for me in one course may not work in another. Each of us needs to
constantly examine how we are teaching and what our goals are. We must
also be constantly listening to our students and trying to understand their
difficulties. We must be analyzing what the students say and why they are
saying it then apply our analysis to our own teaching. That process in
itself will lead to significant reform and will make physics more enjoyable
for our students and for us.