Back to the Blackboard: Physics Education at the University of Guelph

Posted on Monday, June 21st, 2021

Written by Michael Stuck & Callum Stonehouse

The Department of Physics at the University of Guelph has a national reputation of excellence in teaching, in part due to our strong commitment to advancing our understanding of the craft through physics education research. Faculty members Drs. Martin Williams, Joanne O’Meara, and Mike Massa lead the work in this area, focusing on improving the quality of teaching physics and science at not only the university level, but at the elementary and high school levels as well.

One area of research conducted by this group focuses on studying female under-representation in physics. Ph.D. candidate Eamonn Corrigan is currently analyzing data from provincial ministries of education from across Canada—in his own words, “… trying to understand which demographic factors interact with gender to lower enrolment rates in high school physics.” Eamonn is also analyzing Ontario Universities’ Application Centre (OUAC) data to determine the factors that link to student enrolment in undergraduate physics programs in the province. Having a better understanding of the current landscape, the next stage of his work will be to develop and implement effective intervention techniques to address the under-representation of women in physics head-on. This research is conducted in close collaboration with Chris Meyer, an award-winning high school physics teacher in the Toronto District School Board and the current president of the Ontario Association of Physics Teachers.

Diagram outlining the attrition of women in Engineering over the course of their education.
This leaky pipeline depicts the gender discrepancies in both physics and engineering. The largest “leaks” in the pipeline tend to be with female high school students, which is where Eamonn’s research is focused. (credit: Eamonn Corrigan; adapted from E. Corrigan et al[1])

 In order to attract bright and critically thinking students to physics, we need to continue to emphasize the relevance of a physics degree to students of all demographics. Corrigan argues that, “As our world keeps developing, the problems we are trying to solve are more challenging, they’re more difficult… I think a physics degree is an excellent way to build a unique set of problem solving and critical thinking skills that can apply to a huge range of future career paths.” As our world changes, physics education has to change as well: it’s this continual assessment and improvement that is the focus of much of the physics education research at the University of Guelph. This research helps to keep the curriculum dynamic, making changes in response to needs and opportunities.

One of these recent changes is the addition of a new third-year course: IPS*3000, Science Communication. The course has been developed and taught by Dr. O’Meara, with the primary purpose of enhancing students’ abilities to convey scientific ideas through various media to a variety of audiences, from younger students to fellow peers and scientists. Communication is an essential skill, especially for students pursuing a career in science, yet it is often left out of physics curricula. IPS*3000 is all about communicating physics and science to non-technical audiences, which is an invaluable skill for physics students to have. Dr. O’Meara’s course ensures that Guelph’s students graduate with practical experience and a clear understanding of how to communicate science knowledge to diverse groups, which gives them an edge in the job search marketplace.

Joanne O’Meara (left) leads an outreach program for teaching younger students about physics. To the right, a group of physics students work together in a science communication group exercise. (photos: Saksham Sharma (L), Chris Schultz-Nielsen (R))

Recent developments have also been made in Guelph’s undergraduate physics program relating to the research of PhD candidate Matt Steffler, who is focusing on integrating computation into the curriculum. These computational techniques are not taught through a dedicated course but are integrated into existing physics courses to promote the relevance of computation and enhance the students’ learning of physics. Through this research, Steffler hopes to continue to further the connection between students learning to code and gaining a better understanding of modern physics. Fundamental programming skills are also very relevant for a variety of career paths. Steffler argues that, “A [basic] understanding of coding is becoming pretty much essential for any technology-based job.” Steffler is working with Drs. Massa and Williams to carefully scaffold the development of key coding skills through assignments and data analysis in almost all of the core undergraduate physics courses.

An example of a coding assignment, developed by Massa and Steffler for an undergraduate electricity and magnetism course. Assignments like these enhance learning by enabling students to visualize fields and explore dynamic systems in a way that cannot easily be done with a textbook. (photo: Mike Massa)

Continual advancement in pedagogy is the hallmark of our approach to physics education at the University of Guelph, and not just in our upper-year core courses. Dr. Williams is a champion of active learning in our large-enrolment first-year courses, where he enhances the learning environment through the development of new labs and in-class activities to give students more ownership over their studies. Active learning engages students with carefully designed discussions and group problem-solving exercises, stepping away from the ‘sage on the stage’ approach. Research has shown that active learning leads to students leaving the lecture hall with better understanding and retention of core concepts. 

Martin Williams
Professor Martin Williams, engaging with his first-year students during an in-class discussion. (photo: Chris Schultz-Nielsen)

The University of Guelph’s physics education research group is dedicated to finding ways to improve the quality and relevance of an undergraduate physics degree through encouraging people of all backgrounds to consider studying physics, by focusing on the development of relevant and useful skills such as communication and computation, and by engaging all students in the learning process. With award-winning teachers and dedicated education specialists, the undergraduate physics program at the University of Guelph is respected across Canada for our student-centered focus and commitment to excellence, a guided evolution based on what we learn from the latest research findings.

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