New focus on research into education for Department of Physics

Interviewer: Sarah Saxton

Headshot of Michael FoxA new team of teaching fellows and researchers is focusing their efforts on improving education within the Department of Physics.

The informal grouping – the Physics Education Group – began work in 2021. I spoke to new Senior Teaching Fellow, Michael Fox, to find out more.

How did the Group come about?

This is really part of the Department of Physics’ response to two main things. Firstly, the publication of the College’s Learning and Teaching Strategy in 2017, which set the direction to think about physics teaching as a research-based activity. Secondly, the annual National Student Survey (NSS) had highlighted some areas of improvement for physics teaching. This led to the creation of additional teaching and research posts such that we now have ten people in the Physics department with a focus on delivering and continually improving the educational experience of our undergraduate students.

What is the main focus of your work?

I am part of the Strengthening Learning Communities project, which is a 3-4 year project that Mark Richards and Vijay Tymms helped set up and now supervise. It can be thought of in two integrative parts: one quantitative and the other qualitative. The quantitative element of the project is examining ten years of data from past physics students to identify any attainment gaps in between different demographic groups, allowing us to target interventions and ultimately find ways to address the gaps.

We’re looking at lots of different demographic characteristics, including sex, gender identity, ethnicity, race, school background and socio-economic background. The data includes both Department and College level data which is all anonymised before we use it.

It sounds like a big data set…

It is, we’ve seen over 2,000 undergraduate students through the Department over the last ten years and we have data on attainment in each of the modules that they have taken over the three or four years of their degree. Each student studies between 5-10 modules a year so it’s a lot of data. We also have all of the department-level data from a decade of NSS results.

What made you suspect that attainment may be affected by demographics?

We’re building on a previous small-scale study within the Department that looked at some of this data and which found some clear differences between demographic groups. We wanted to look at a bigger data set and leave no stone unturned in our analysis of it.

And the project also has a qualitative strand?

That’s right, this is the second part of the project, where we have a PhD student, Amy Smith, who is looking into physics students’ sense of belonging, both to physics as a subject as well as to the Department of Physics at Imperial. Sense of belonging may affect retention in physics as well as attainment. One possible future avenue of the qualitative work is to speak to physics alumni about their time at Imperial. Through their historic data their experiences are already feeding into the project, but numbers can only tell you so much about the lived experiences of students.

I understand your partnership with the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship has had a huge impact on the project?

It absolutely has, we’ve been lucky to have had fantastic support from CHERS. This is the first time the Department has been able to invest in research into physics education and we’re all physicists who have moved into physics education at different stages in our careers. Camille Kandiko Howson from CHERS is a member of the Strengthening Learning Communities project and her insights and support to the team have been invaluable.

Will you be involving students in the project?

There will be quite a few ways for students to be involved in the project. Last term, I supervised a BSc student project looking at using machine learning to help process qualitative data. Additionally, Amy Smith and Jessie Durk, a postdoctoral researcher on the project, have already run a Student Shapers project to learn from the experiences of students during the pandemic to help this year’s first-year students settle into undergraduate life. As well as the possibility of future Student Shapers projects there will be opportunities for undergraduate researchers to get involved in analysing and interpreting the data. And as we identify issues that need to be addressed in the way that physics is taught, we want to get students to propose and help us evaluate new ways of doing things, which will ultimately inform our decision making.

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