FEd April 1998 Newsletter - Dean Zollman Interview

April 1998



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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 be doing.

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 is reform.

Ed.: What do you see as the principal goals of science education reform?

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., sputnik-inspired)?

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…how 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 process.

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 me?

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.