What is PER and Why Is It Important?


What Is Physics Education Research?
Physics Education Research (PER) is research into the learning, understanding and teaching of physics and the application of physics knowledge.

Physics Education Research is not yet popular in India. How many universities have courses on this subject? The way physics is being taught in colleges and universities today (2022) is no different than what it was in 1980s. Although traditional lectures and practicals will and must remain, there’s a lot that has changed in the way physics can be taught and learnt. Back in 1980s, I remember that to learn more about nuclear physics my univeristy (Bombay University) and the Head of the Physics Department had arranged many visits and practicals to the BARC. Spent many days there in learning about that subject. Some experiments we were not permitted as they were too expensive time consuming, but we were exposed to the working of different equipment.

But for such experiments which are too complicated, expensive and dangerous (the God particle experiment?) there are now simulations that can be used to teach. Is augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) being used in teaching physics at any level? Students learn better if they are interactively engaged (as opposed to passively sitting in a lecture).

Computational techniques form the essential part of any undergraduate level and PG level physics, yet most universities don’t have dedicated papers on computational techniques in physics and sciences. There is no point in teaching the algorithms of Newton-Raphson and Gauss-Seidel method again – use these as tools and move on in applying those algorithms to physics. Wolfram site has excellent resources on these topics.

Another area of research that is missing is to uncover the misconceptions in physics, and there are many such misconceptions. These misconceptions can be discovered through a rigourous set of multiple choice questions. There is a wealth of data that is readily available not just for physics but also for mathematics and chemistry. Data collection stage is not required – only the data has to be analysed. Where is this data, you may ask? Its been available for decades, with the IITs that conduct the JEE exams and the agencies conducting NEET exams. Sate boards that conduct Common Entrance Tests (CET) also have wealth of data on student performance.

Can this readily available data, amassed over the years, not just with IITs but BITS and other universities be used to do research on what are the popular misconceptions – why students get answers wrong, etc? Are there AI / ML tools that can help in this research? Will JEE and NEET data (without student’s identification ofcourse) be made available for researchers?

Many years ago, a Director of a science institute advised me – “dont get into PER, it has no value”. I dont know. The fact is he was probably right. Most universities donot recognize a PhD in Physics with Education Research (PER) for teaching posts. Which is strange, because as a physics teacher your job is to be in lab and class and teach – not do only research. Encourage physics education and physics education research. And not just in physics, but also math, chemistry and other sciences.

The next generation of physics learners will not benefit by the existing ways of teaching physics. There must be a radical change in what is taught, and how it is taught. Experiential learning must be mandatory and will make the subject more interesting. How physics must be taught can be learnt by exploring how students learn physics and by adapting our teaching appropriately. Physics will play a central role in the technology-centred society from now on and so it is important that we first research how physics is understood and then how to teach this subject.

#physicsteacher #physicseducation #PER #iitjee #neetexam


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