The MSU Physics Education Research (PER) Group concentrates on public outreach, and research that investigates undergraduate and graduate education. Our research includes examining and developing strategies to improve the epistemic beliefs of students in introductory astronomy courses, as well as psychometric analysis of known assessment tools in PER. We collaborate with various groups and institutions like the Montana Engineering Education Research Center (MEERC), the NASA Heliophysics Education Consortium, and the College of Education as well as other STEM faculty members at MSU. We concentrate on the following major areas of study
Briefly, epistemological beliefs are beliefs focused around the nature of knowledge and how that knowledge is acquired. Epistemic beliefs directly affect a myriad of student traits such as motivation, metacognition, ability to learn, and scientific literacy, to name a few. Of great concern is the fact that, across the country, these beliefs have been shown to deteriorate over the course of a semester of instruction within a typical science course. Here at MSU we are studying how to improve students’ epistemological beliefs regarding science within an undergraduate introductory astronomy course. In the United States introductory astronomy courses are often the only science course that non-STEM majors will take while pursuing an undergraduate degree. This means that we science educators have a chance to improve the epistemological belief structure of our students, beliefs which will then dictate how well these individuals can follow and appreciate scientific arguments being presented in the media. Carl Sagan himself best expressed the importance of a strong epistemological belief structure within science when he wrote “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster.”
Psychometrics is a realm of statistical analysis that focuses on instrument development and conceptual interpretation based upon student response patterns. Some notable theories that are part of traditional psychometrics are Item Response Theory (IRT), Exploratory/Common Factor Analysis (EFA), Classical Test Theory, and Model Analysis. These are a mixture of item-level analysis methods and clustering methodologies which are applied to student response data in an effort to give a quantitative description of student thinking.
Commonly used instruments in Physics Education Research (PER), like the FCI, EMCS, BEMA, and DIRECT, have not undergone a full analysis under many of the theories available in psychometrics. At MSU, we are interested in bridging these gaps of information to make more accurate claims within PER. For example, one can study how changes in curriculum influence the conceptual gain of a class.
The MSU PER group also looks into expanding the understanding of student thought structure through the use of EFA and IRT, further developing the statistical theories currently available, and applying new statistical methods that have not been considered yet.