NSF grant funds $600,000 Clemson project to improve high school physics classes

CLEMSON — A Clemson University professor has received a $600,000 National Science Foundation grant to study ways to improve physics classes for high school students.

Zahra Hazari, an assistant professor of engineering and science education, hopes to help students — particularly young women and minorities — develop a positive "physics identity" that will enable them to perform better in science classes.

"Most students still don't enjoy learning physics and fail to transfer what they've learned to their chosen disciplines and their lives," Hazari said. "I hope to begin to empower and invigorate students toward long-term learning in physics."

Using classroom case studies, Hazari will identify "personally meaningful learning experiences" that high school students have reported in physics lessons. She then will develop lesson plans with detailed activities that connect physics to real-world contexts.

The grant — a Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, award — calls for Hazari to create sample lesson plans to counter stereotypes that young people have about physics and to help them gain perceptions of themselves as capable of performing well in the subject.

"The physics education community has done commendable work to improve the conceptual understanding of students through curricular reforms. But despite more than 30 years of reform efforts in physics education, students continue to lack enthusiasm for studying the subject," Hazari said. "In addition, larger numbers of students take physics courses in high school and college than ever before, yet the field has failed to attract proportionately higher numbers of students to physics careers."

Hazari's research also seeks to gauge the long-term impact of classroom experiences as students progress from high school to college. She will continue to survey a small group of physics students for several years.

"I hypothesize that students in general, and females in particular, develop depressed attitudes toward physics and negative perceptions of themselves as physics learners due to the lack of personally meaningful learning experiences," she said. "I hope this project will fill a gap in the physics education reform efforts by identifying what physics teachers can do to better engage students' interest."

Hazari joined the Clemson faculty in 2008 after completing postdoctoral work at Harvard. Her research focuses on the interaction of students' feelings and knowledge — the "affective and cognitive domains" of learning — in physics education, especially with respect to student diversity.

The CAREER award is sponsored by National Science Foundation's Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings, a part of the agency's Education and Human Resources Directorate.

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