Grand Challenges in Physics Education Research

Rachel E. Scherr, Seattle Pacific University, and Stephen Kanim, New Mexico State

Articulating achievable physics education research (PER) goals will promote discussion within the PER community and provide a basis for communication with non-PER physicists and policymakers. Previous related efforts have included a decadal study to inform improvement of undergraduate physics education [1] and historical studies of physics education research [2]. The formation of the Topical Group in Physics Education Research (GPER) in the APS prompted reflection by the PER community as to what this new presence in APS might mean for physics education researchers (who are currently associated mainly with the PER Topical Group of the AAPT, PERTG). There is a desire to create an occasion for mutual intellectual engagement about issues of physics education, to build a closer link between the PER community and the broader physics community represented by both APS and AAPT. The result is the “Grand Challenges in PER” initiative.

Identify ambitious goals for physics education research that will be achievable within seven years and will have significant societal impact.

Societal impact will be in terms of benefit to physics learners, teachers, scholars, and professionals. Alignment with national documents identifying related challenges in STEM education will increase the potential impact. Some sample Grand Challenges might be:
  • Identify high-leverage practices in undergraduate education that recruit and prepare future teachers.
  • Identify epistemic, cultural, and educational background factors that cause women and underrepresented minorities to avoid physics, and to establish best practice guidelines to minimize these. Develop an understanding of the cultural resources of women and underrepresented minorities and investigate how these resources might inform and improve the culture of science.
  • Develop novel evidence-centered design systems for cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of physics learning, including habits of mind that are particularly valued in physics.
  • Identify the specialized content knowledge for teaching physics required at different levels, and develop novel measurement instruments to assess it.
  • Develop a suite of research-based curricular materials that better align instruction about energy with societal issues about energy and climate and that take into account learners' initial states and document the effectiveness of these materials.
  • Develop models for effective social networks that promote both science learning and identity for majors, and document improvements to retention resulting from application of these models to learning environments.
  • Significantly expand the research basis for understanding effective and appropriate instruction in physics for life sciences majors, and develop initial sets of curricular materials that reflect new goals for these learners.
  • Inspire physics education researchers to apply themselves to ambitious but achievable goals with significant societal impact
  • Engage policymakers with the achievements and ambitions of physics education research
  • Educate APS and AAPT members about the field of physics education research. (These audiences broadly represent both educators with an interest in physics and physicists with an interest in education.)
  • Educate physics education researchers about non-PER physicists’ interests, needs, and knowledge about physics education
  • Inform the activities of GPER and PERTG members
  • Strengthen proposed projects
  • Strengthen professional society efforts to improve physics education for all

The product of the Grand Challenges initiative will be a policy paper. In order to promote the formation of ambitious goals and articulate these goals for the most general possible audience, the primary audience for the Grand Challenges is the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Secondary audiences include policy makers, the members of APS and AAPT, and the PER community.

The Grand Challenges in PER process will be carried out by a joint committee of GPER and PERTG and supported by the respective professional societies (particularly APS leadership in the Office of Education & Diversity). The Grand Challenges in PER Committee co-chairs are Rachel Scherr (currently Chair-Elect of the APS GPER Executive Committee) and Stephen Kanim (currently Chair-Elect of the AAPT PER Leadership and Organizing Council).

The Grand Challenges in PER Committee will be composed of 10-15 individuals representing diverse interests in PER in the USA, including but not limited to physics teacher education, university physics education, qualitative and quantitative approaches to research, small and large research groups, theoretical and experimental work, curriculum development and implementation, and working with diverse populations. Non-PER physicists on the Committee will include leaders in physics education and policy. Agency liaisons will include physics professional society leaders and officers of funding agencies engaged in education and diversity issues. An Advisory Board of about a dozen additional people representing additional professional perspectives will provide input to and feedback on the activities of the Committee, including perspectives from various senior leaders in PER, non-PER physics faculty, and discipline-based education research (DBER) faculty from other disciplines.


1. National Research Council, “Adapting to a Changing World - Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education,” National Academies Press, 2013.

2. K. Cummings, “A Developmental History of Physics Education Research,” 2011.

Rachel Scherr is a Senior Research Scientist at Seattle Pacific University, where she conducts research on the teaching and learning of energy, among other projects. She is one of the co-organizers of the FFPER conference.

Steve Kanim is an Emeritus Professor of Physics at New Mexico State University. He is active in the field of PER, currently serving as Chair-elect of the PER Leadership Organizing Council. His recent research focuses on helping students to develop the skills necessary for the flexible and generative use of mathematics that is essential for physics.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.