Our guest this month is a mathematical physicist who loves science communication and found her calling in physics education research. Magdalena Kersting is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oslo, working on a multitude of projects to integrate the teaching of physics in school with topics from contemporary research, in particular the special and general theories of relativity developed just over a century ago by Albert Einstein.
Let’s start from your path: how did you discover science education as a field of study and research?
I studied physics and mathematics, so I’m a mathematical physicist by training but I always had a passion for science communication. Then I was very lucky to see a PhD job opportunity in physics education research at the University of Oslo in Norway, which really seemed to combine my interest in physics and my passion for science communication.
They were looking for someone with expertise in general relativity, which I had, to develop a digital learning environment to convey the key ideas of Einstein’s theories. This sounded very exciting, even though I had no background in education before. It was quite a journey because education research is quite different from research in the natural sciences.
The longer I work in physics and science education research, the more strongly I feel about the importance of science education and science literacy, and I spend most of my time trying to find better ways to teach science in formal and informal contexts.
How was your transition from physics to education research?
During the first year of my PhD I struggled quite a bit. Different academic disciplines have different traditions, and it felt as if all I had learnt during my studies – well, it was not useless but I could not really use it for this project, so for the first year I really felt that I had made a horrible mistake!
Then I read a lot of literature, I took courses in qualitative and quantitative research methods, on how to conduct video research (when you have a camera installed in a classroom or at a science festival) and analyse these data, I started to attend conferences… It’s like learning a new language: you start to understand what other people are saying and after a while you are able to say something as well.
Nowadays I really enjoy it because science education is very eclectic: I have many interests and education research combines insights from psychology, cognitive sciences, philosophy, history and philosophy of science and many other disciplines.
Can you tell our readers a bit about the physics education community in Norway and also in other countries where you studied or worked?
Norway is a small country, with about five million people: this makes it easy to become part of the community. And it is quite modern when it comes to designing the physics and science curricula: they introduced both special and general relativity already in 2006. The physics and science education research community is quite cutting-edge in Norway, because it’s easier to innovate in a small country.
I come from Germany originally, and if you want to innovate there, it would probably take twenty years! There is so much bureaucracy, so many people with different opinions, whereas Norway is smaller and things happen quickly. This is nice: you can innovate, make changes and see an educational impact. Some of the results from my PhD research made it into books for physics teachers, so now physics teachers learn about my research. There is a tight community between physicists, physics educators and education researchers.
I also did research in Australia for almost a year. The collaboration between the University of Oslo and the University of Western Australia (UWA) has led to a worldwide movement to modernize physics education. My colleagues in the Einstein-First Project at UWA, who coined the term Einsteinian physics education research, are really trying to develop a modern curriculum that completely rethinks and reimagines science education. Instead of starting from old stuff, for example from Newton, following the historic way of teaching physics, they start from modern concepts, from our current best understanding of physics and then show how these ideas simplify in the context of our everyday lives.
This has become a worldwide collaboration. We have several collaborators in Italy, one of the most active is Matteo Luca Ruggiero from the Polytechnic University of Turin, who recently published a paper with his collaborators about an Einsteinian physics intervention with primary school students, in which they try to replicate the results from Australia in Italy.
In this context, what are the main challenges in physics education?
I think the challenges are similar around the world: trying to bridge the gap between research and practice. There are many physicists who are dedicated to improving physics education but they usually come from the physics academia, then there are education researchers who try to work with teachers, but often a lot of ideas remain within the academia.
You need to work with teachers and train apprentice teachers in order to really improve educational practice, but sometimes it’s hard to reach teachers.
Lots of teachers are intimidated by Einsteinian physics because it’s often not part of their education. So the biggest challenge is translating research findings to the actual classroom and collaborating with teachers so that they can get the training they need.
How does your research work look like?
Like other academics, I read a lot of literature, write papers, attend conferences, and spend too many hours answering emails! The actual empirical part depends on the specific kind of project.
In Norway we often do “design-based research” with schools: we collaborate with teachers and bring different educational resources in the classroom, then iterate with them. When I was developing the general relativity learning environment during my PhD, we created a pilot module and worked with five schools: teachers taught with those resources in the first year, we had cameras installed in the classrooms, then we interviewed teachers and students, and we had access to student answers in the digital platform.
We collected all the data we could get and analysed them, looking for problems, conceptual difficulties, misconceptions. Then we fed the results of the data analysis into redesigning the resources. In the second year, we worked with a team to properly design the learning environment. Then again: five teachers taught with our resources, we collected data, filmed everything, interviewed students – this went on for 4 years. We would go to the teachers once a year and then iterate on the initial design to refine the resources.
My current project at the Department of Teacher Education and School Research in Oslo is much bigger, we are collaborating with 20 schools and have video footage from over 100 hours of teaching practice in science classrooms to try and identify how instructional practices link to the student outcome. If students score really high in the tests, for example, you go back to the classroom and check whether there is something in common that teachers did at that stage.
Why is it important to teach Einsteinian physics in school?
In science education, you may look at student motivation to learn physics and science, or you may look at how well students learn the scientific concepts. Unfortunately there is a decline in both interest and academic abilities in science and physics over the years. In the PISA study, a huge educational study conducted in all OECD countries, many countries show the same trend: students become less and less interested in physics and science over time and they also perform worse – that’s at least the case in Norway and Australia, which are the countries I’m most familiar with.
Bringing Einsteinian physics to schools is greatly motivating: students are willing to learn physics and they also have higher conceptual gains. In our research, we try to figure out why students seem to be so motivated and how we can use this to help them consider science as a career path. We also try to identify where student misconceptions come from – there are a lot of misconceptions about gravity, for example – and to find better ways to teach science, developing instructional resources that help students become more motivated and to learn science better.
What is it about Einsteinian physics that motivates them?
It’s important to distinguish between the effect of Einsteinian physics as a subject and the use of hands-on activities, simulations and group work, which are generally more engaging than most traditional instructional practices in physics. My colleagues in Australia use a lot of hands-on activities and it’s clear that students appreciate them; moreover, middle-school girls often prefer group work rather than individual work.
But what I found out in a recent paper is that Einsteinian physics inherently combines different factors that can motivate students, irrespective of the format. One of these is that physics is relevant today, it’s an ongoing human activity, not only something that Isaac Newton came up with 400 years ago. It’s something that still gets a lot of attention: two of the latest Nobel Prizes in Physics went to award aspects of black holes and gravitational waves. Students realise that physics is not old and outdated stuff: it’s the research frontier that scientists still spend a lot of time figuring out. They find it really exciting that there still are open mysteries: we don’t know everything, we can ask questions but we don’t have the answers yet, and this can be really motivating. And of course, you probably experience this in your work, lots of people are interested in astronomy and space science, including students: if you can show that physics covers these topics as well, this is also motivating for a lot of students.
You also looked specifically at the experience of middle-school girls and how they experience Einsteinian physics in the classroom. Can you tell us about that?
Previous research had found that girls seem to have higher gains and interest when they encounter Einsteinian physics than boys, but until recently we didn’t know why. So during my research period in Perth I did an in-depth case study with two classes of year-9 students (around 14-15 years old) in Australia, interviewing girls and asking them to write down their experiences, and collaborating with teachers as well.
We found that Einsteinian physics has excellent potential for students to identify with science and physics: a lot of girls said they previously thought physics was boring and were more interested, say, in biology, but after our intervention they realised that physics encompasses exciting topics like space science or black holes and philosophical questions about the nature of space and time.
The topics and contents of physics can really challenge traditional stereotypes, along with questions such as: who can be a physicist? how do physicists work? Students realise that physicists need a lot of creativity and imagination. One of the girls said: “Wow, Albert Einstein was the most creative person on Earth!” and a lot of them said they could imagine a career in physics or science.
Does the presence of role models such as Einstein help motivate the students?
I often choose an approach coming from the history and philosophy of science: instead of just presenting physics concepts, you also show how these concepts developed and the persons behind them. Instead of just talking about Albert Einstein or Emmy Noether, you can show the human aspect: Einstein struggled for ten years moving from special to general relativity and needed help from his mathematician friends. Or you can talk about Emmy Noether and other women at the time and how hard it was for them to just earn money, or the discrimination they experienced.
Students appreciate it if you present the physics content in the broader context of history and philosophy of science, in particular those students that are usually disengaged by the traditional physics content. Once they see physics is a human endeavour and the people working on it, they start to identify with it. History and philosophy of science is a recurring theme in my research. Providing the broader context of science shows students that it’s not only about truths and yes-and-no but there are many shades of grey: people make errors, there is a constant improvement in our understanding.
I know you are also involved in another project that involves virtual reality, what is that about?
This is a collaboration with the Education and Public Outreach team at OzGrav, the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery. They have developed many virtual and augmented reality experiences in astronomy education, with a focus on gravitational-wave astronomy, and I joined the team trying to study the efficacy of these activities.
Virtual reality is exciting and seems to have so much potential to improve outreach activities, but with our research we tried to look beyond the hype. We spent three days at a science festival in Melbourne, before the pandemic of course. We had installed video cameras and ran surveys for visitors after they had been in the virtual experience, to understand the different ways through which festival visitors engage with these virtual environments.
What did you learn from this study?
One thing we learnt is that you can engage a lot more people if you have a screen-casting application. Often virtual reality can seem like an isolating activity: you have the headset on and you are in the virtual environment but you don’t see people around you and they don’t see what’s going on. So we had a huge screen; this also helps address the needs of people who cannot (or don’t want to) wear the headset for different reasons.
When it comes to visualising the experience, people get often overwhelmed in virtual reality experiences, and there is a balance between the visual richness and focussing on the key ideas you need to convey. We recommend not to present too much at once, as this might make it overwhelming for users.
Another recommendation is what we call the “meet the scientist effect”, which is not really connected with virtual reality per se. Festival-goers enjoy meeting real scientists, and we had a lot of volunteer helpers with us at the festival – PhD students and post-docs who are experts in gravitational waves. This was really motivating for festival visitors because they could ask the scientists questions, which provided a great boost to the experience.
This is a win-win situation because the PhD students and post-docs were also motivated by talking about their science: early career researchers often have imposter syndrome and think they don’t know enough, but if you give them a chance to talk about their research and answer questions from festival visitors, they realise that they know quite a lot and can share their knowledge and passion for science. Not everyone can have fancy virtual reality equipment, but this is a very good way to engage people.
We are currently working on a follow-up project to formulate more recommendations, hopefully we will submit a new paper soon.
What are the most exciting and most difficult parts in your job?
I feel really fortunate because I get to work on questions I find exciting; this is true for all researchers, and in addition to that I also get to see that this work has an educational impact. That’s probably the most exciting part, that it combines the good aspects of academia and real-world impact.
On the challenging side, first of all, you need to be good at taking care of yourself: when you work on things you find exciting, there is always the danger of working too much and saying yes to too many projects.
A more specific challenge is moving between different disciplines, which can be exciting but also difficult. At a physics conference I’m not really a physicist, at an education conference I’m too much of a physicist, then I may attend a cognitive science conference but I’m not trained in that discipline, I just use their methods. It’s the challenge of interdisciplinary research: you have several communities but there is not just one community you belong to.
How is your work received by the physics community?
More and more physicists realise that education is important and the general perception of physics education research is changing. People see the need for good physics education: you can’t educate people just by giving them books. In the past decades, it’s not been done in the best possible way and people now realise that physics education research can offer insightful advice on how to improve physics education both in schools and universities – I personally don’t work on university education but there is a lot of research on that as well. Still, a lot of people think that just by being a good physicist they also know how to teach but no, there is a difference between being a good physicist and a good educator!
Is there a scientist or author that especially influenced you?
In physics, someone who really influenced me is Sean Carroll. I’m a general relativity person and I learned general relativity from his textbook ‘Spacetime and geometry’. Then I taught general relativity from his textbook and I’m a big fan of his podcast, too. The way that I do physics and the way I like to link it to other parts of society and academia is influenced a lot by Sean Carroll. But I draw a lot of inspiration from different disciplines: philosophers, writers, physicists.
You just published a book on physics education research. Can you tell us more about it and other upcoming book projects?
Just a few weeks ago, we published a book called ‘Teaching Einsteinian Physics in schools’ that collects expertise from 30 colleagues in 9 countries on 4 continents. It’s a book for physics teachers, in training and practice. There is a huge glossary with all the important conncepts in Einsteinian physics and education research, many chapters explaining the scientific foundations and instructional approaches, and also a small section with research projects from around the world. I’m the main editor but it’s a group effort and we’re all really proud.
Then I have a new book coming up, ‘Closer to science in the classroom’, to be published in November. It’s the outcome of my current research project in which we analysed 20 science classrooms studying how instructional practices affect the learning and motivation of students.