From Cornell: “Critical Thinking—Attained through Physics”

Cornell Bloc

Cornell University

5.23.17
Jackie Swift

1
Beatrice Jin

Science is about experimentation, creativity, even play. The greatest breakthroughs have come from those who pushed the known limits to ask why, how, and ultimately what if. If this is how the best science is done, then why don’t we start giving students autonomy to explore and create in the lab early in their university training? If we do, Natasha G. Holmes, Physics, says that perhaps they’ll get a taste of what it means to be a scientist early enough that they’ll choose science as a career path.

Holmes studies the teaching and learning of physics, especially in lab courses, but her work is applicable more broadly across many disciplines. “In the lab students have their hands on the equipment,” she says. “I’m looking at what they are getting or not getting out of that experience and also digging into what the lab space is actually good for. As a loftier, long-term goal, how can we provide students with transferable skills that will make them critical thinkers and good citizens?”

A Tool for Assessing Critical Thinking Skills in Physics

To shed light on those questions, Holmes is working on a project funded by the National Science Foundation to design a tool that can assess critical thinking. “This will be a closed response standardized test that allows any instructor to measure whether their students can think critically about a physics experiment,” Holmes says.

Holmes and her coresearcher, Carl Wieman of Stanford University, began designing the assessment by gathering initial data from respondents at multiple universities. They asked them a series of open-ended questions about an introductory level mass-on-a-spring physics experiment conducted by a hypothetical group of people. Respondents answered questions about the hypothetical group’s methods and the data that the group collected. For instance, they were asked if they thought the data collected was reasonable, how well they felt the hypothetical group designed the experiment, and how well the group evaluated the model.

“We were looking for the most common answers an introductory physics student would give,” Holmes explains. “But we also wanted to collect as many responses as we could from advanced physics majors, professors, and grad students to see the full spectrum of possible answers.” The researchers distilled the open-ended answers down into a multiple-choice test that can be given to students before they take a lab course and again afterward, to see how well they have learned the concepts.

See the full article here .

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Once called “the first American university” by educational historian Frederick Rudolph, Cornell University represents a distinctive mix of eminent scholarship and democratic ideals. Adding practical subjects to the classics and admitting qualified students regardless of nationality, race, social circumstance, gender, or religion was quite a departure when Cornell was founded in 1865.

Today’s Cornell reflects this heritage of egalitarian excellence. It is home to the nation’s first colleges devoted to hotel administration, industrial and labor relations, and veterinary medicine. Both a private university and the land-grant institution of New York State, Cornell University is the most educationally diverse member of the Ivy League.

On the Ithaca campus alone nearly 20,000 students representing every state and 120 countries choose from among 4,000 courses in 11 undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools. Many undergraduates participate in a wide range of interdisciplinary programs, play meaningful roles in original research, and study in Cornell programs in Washington, New York City, and the world over.

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