Texas Tech Physics Professors Earn NIH Grant to Study Best Teaching Practices for Undergraduate Physics Instruction

Beth Thacker and Kelvin Cheng will test several different areas of introductory physics instruction.

Two professors at Texas Tech University’s Department of Physics received $809,700 in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to analyze different teaching methods of introductory physics and determine which methods work best for student understanding of the material. Beth Thacker, an associate professor of physics, and Kelvin Cheng, a professor of physics, received the two-year Challenge Grant from the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Their award is one of 19 to researchers in 12 states. Cheng and Thacker will compare a course taught completely by hands-on, lab-based instruction to the standard textbook-lecture-and-lab course, and test newly developed course materials designed to enhance student understanding. They will compare student learning outcomes from teaching assistants who have received teacher training to those who have not and compare courses taught with lecture-lab synergy to those without integrated lecture-lab instruction. Also, they will assess both the algebra-based and calculus-based introductory physics courses. “This funding is to make a large-scale assessment of these different types of instructional methods,” Cheng said. “It is interesting that this has not been done before on a large scale. I’m hoping this will involve the whole department in a collaborative effort.” Thacker said many instructors tend to teach the way they were taught and are hesitant to adopt new curricula and teaching methods, even though physics education research is beginning to indicate a number of non-traditional methods may be more successful at increasing students’ understanding. “Very few large universities have researched teaching methods to see which are more effective,” Thacker said. “We are going to do a systematic study of students understanding with a number different assessment tools that will allow us to compare the effectiveness of different teaching methods.” The Challenge Grants seek to jump-start a range of research projects that will address critical gaps in the basic biomedical and behavioral sciences, including science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Because introductory physics is a requirement for pre-health profession undergraduates, Cheng and Thacker hope to discover the most effective way to teach physics to these students. More information about NIH’s ARRA grant funding opportunities can be found at http://grants.nih.gov/recovery/. To track the progress of HHS activities funded through the ARRA, visit www.hhs.gov/recovery. To track all federal funds provided through the ARRA, visit www.recovery.gov. CONTACT: Beth Thacker, associate professor of physics, Department of Physics, Texas Tech University, (806) 742-2996, or beth.thacker@ttu.edu; Kelvin Cheng, professor of physics, Department of Physics, Texas Tech University, (806) 742-2992 or kelvin.cheng@ttu.edu.