SPUR 2019: Observational and Assessment-based Analysis of Competency and Effectiveness of Introductory Physics Courses


The University of Utah’s (the U) Department of Physics & Astronomy has created a new series of introductory physics for life scientists (ILPS) laboratory courses, which incorporate content, instructional techniques, and external resources directly related to life sciences. A significant segment of the student population enrolled in these IPLS laboratory courses are life science students with a variety of related majors and career interests, including medical fields. The medical community, and the medical school community specifically, has long placed weight on physics content in their lists of competencies and pre-requisites. Given this background, we examine the following question: “In what ways does the newly-designed IPLS courses strengthen student competencies and pre-requisite knowledge?”

Our research works to answer this question with respect to the U’s new IPLS laboratory courses. Our project is currently focused on:

  1. the efficacy of these IPLS laboratory courses implementation to promote student growth in scientific data analysis, and
  2. the students skills and knowledge in implementing data analysis, which has been defined by the medical school community as a necessary for proficiency by pre-medical school students.

This project, in part, is designed to orchestrate data analysis task-based interviews to study the post-course data analysis knowledge retention of students. Qualitative interview data will be transcribed, analyzed, and coded to create highly focused research arguments on the efficacy of the courses as described previously. As well, quantitative student surveys have been conducted and will be analyzed to assist in the argumentation of said efficacies.

Student Role

The student role for this project is broad in scope, due to the multiplicity of tasks involved in this project. Primarily, the student will assist faculty and graduate students in the analysis of data from previously conducted student interviews and surveys, as well as submitted student work from previously offered IPLS courses. This involves, among other tasks, transcribing and coding task-based and open-ended student interviews, analyzing aggregated and non-aggregated data from completed student physics educational research surveys (surveys designed to learn about student attitudes and perceptions of physics content and learning in classroom and laboratory settings), and potentially assist researchers in further collection of data to enhance the project.

The work conducted by the student, as well as work conducted by faculty and graduate student researchers, will be consolidated to develop arguments of the effectiveness of the U's IPLS courses with respect to the medical school community's list of competencies for which pre-medical students should be held accountable. Thus, the student will also assist in the broader review of analyzed data to determine to what degree the newly designed courses meet such competencies.

Additionally, the student will assist faculty and graduate student researchers in the continuing development of the U's IPLS courses, based on the research conducted. This work will further the research-oriented instruction and reformation of IPLS courses in a manner similar to design-based research.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

The experience from being a member of this project will allow the student to gain access to a broad scope of physics educational research literature, techniques, and goals. The student will gain familiarity with qualitative and quantitative research methodologies and specifically, task-based and open-ended interviews represent some of the most widely used research techniques in STEM education research. The student will significantly increase their experience working on the analysis of interview data, as well as potentially increasing their experience in the development of interviews and the collection of data utilizing said interviews. Additionally, the student maybe involved in the writing of research reports and will gain experience and skills in academic writing. This experience acts as a bridge to introduce the student to a wide range of education research endeavors using a variety of methodologies. The student will be able to use this work as springboard for future career directions related to STEM teaching and education more broadly.

Lauren Barth-Cohen
Assistant Professor

Educational Psychology
College of Education

We are seeking a motivated and independent student who has an interest in STEM education. The mentoring philosophy is hands on and activities will consist of the following: Weekly in person meetings with project team, including graduate students and faculty; Ongoing practice data analysis work sessions; Reading of relevant background literature to become familiar with the larger intellectual field; and consistent feedback on ongoing data analysis and writing.