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Putting Physics First

A visit with Dorina Kosztin, Teaching Professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy

By Kelly Washatka
Published: - Topics: physics teaching learning accross cultures technology Physics First

The shelves of Dr. Dorina Kosztin’s office are full of colorful toys and apparatus, all demonstrating the power of science. As a physics professor, she is particularly fond of these toys because they show the practical, real-world dimensions of her field, well beyond the abstract equations and formulas typical of textbooks. Indeed, Dr. Kosztin has devoted her life to making physics a more accessible subject for students. Through her ongoing work, she has initiated major changes not only for programs in American institutions but in the very foundations of its classrooms.

Dr. Kosztin says of her career choice, “I always knew I wanted to teach, it was simply a matter of finding what to teach.” Her passion for learning manifested itself in the time and effort she put into her own education, resolutely navigating a variety of experiences across different cultures. After moving to the USA from Romania in 1991, Dr. Kosztin discovered that her visa restricted her activities to formal study, so she took the opportunity to pursue her Ph.D. in physics.

Although Dr. Kosztin has devoted most of her life to formulating innovative physics programs, she hasn't forgotten what a challenge the subject can represent to the beginner. Growing up in Romania, she was introduced to physics in the sixth grade and had a wonderful and rewarding time with the subject for several years. However, when she reached the ninth grade she started to struggle with the concepts. Even though math was still something she loved, she had "hit a wall" when it came to physics. Her then-future husband was able to help her push past this barrier and rekindle her excitement for the subject. She soon realized that “I love this, so maybe I can share my love of physics with students.” In other words, Dr. Kosztin’s personal struggle with the subject shaped the future focus of her pedagogy.

Once she actually began teaching, an entirely new set of hurdles arose. The first was a lingering case of culture shock. In fact, Dr. Kosztin observes that initially “there was a period when I couldn’t understand my students at all.” Coming from a culture that introduces physics so much earlier in school, she had to learn to deal with the fact that some of her university students had no background in physics whatsoever. Eventually Dr. Kosztin adjusted to her students’ level, but she soon began to discern some much bigger, more fundamental issues in the classroom.

The largest challenge Dr. Kosztin faced was one to which any teacher can relate: how do you make a class interesting and involving when it takes place in a lecture hall with hundreds of students? About halfway through her first semester she realized that “all I did was lecture…and I was really bored. And If I was bored, my students must be bored too.” It wasn’t just that the crowd was tough; even Dr. Kosztin admits that “listening to fifty minutes of someone lecturing about physics is not easy; it can put you to sleep.”

So she looked to technology to liven up her classroom. In big lecture halls students are often extremely hesitant to ask or answer questions from fear of embarrassment. To counter this tendency, Dr. Kosztin uses a student response system, clickers, as a tool that allows her students to participate anonymously. A clicker is a device similar to a remote control, transmitting data to a main receiver. This strategy allows each and every student to contribute answers, immediately and in real time, in response to questions posed by the instructor. More than that, after the students have clicked in, Dr. Kosztin encourages them to discuss things directly with their peers and try to convince them that their answer is correct, based on what they’ve talked about in class. As she says of this technique, “it’s very important for students to be able to put their thoughts into words.” Peer discussion allows each student to hash out ideas with those nearby, in smaller, less intimidating groups, so that they can either figure out why they got the answer wrong or gain a better grasp on why they were right. “That’s actually the purpose of the clickers,” she explains. “It’s to get them involved in their own learning!”

Dr. Kosztin’s efforts toward improving the classroom have earned her several awards, including a William T. Kemper Fellowship. She recalls that she was nothing short of speechless when the award was presented to her in the middle of one of her classes. To thank her students for their kindness during the event, she threw them a pizza party—but she didn’t let the learning take a break. She used the smell of the pizza to illustrate the theory of electric fields. In this and many other ways she is always looking for opportunities to demonstrate the real-world applications of physics. As much as possible she tries to employ memorable examples in the classroom—including those toys on her shelves—so that her students can actually see what they’re learning.

Dr. Kosztin’s passion for making physics a more accessible topic in American classrooms has led her to become involved with a program called Physics First. Led in Missouri by Professor Meera Chandrasekhar, Physics First aims at having students start learning the subject in the ninth grade. The Physics First team works towards this goal by hosting summer teacher academies that offer a carefully designed curriculum to ninth-grade teachers. The thought behind the Physics First program is that the usual succession of the sciences (biology and chemistry taught before physics) is outdated because, as these sciences have evolved, biology and chemistry have become much more complicated, and a background in physics helps greatly in understanding them. Also, for students who want to study physics in the higher grades, building a basic foundation and then expanding knowledge slowly throughout their educational years is the approach Dr. Kosztin considers most effective.

Of course, not everyone is on board with Physics First right away; when biology and chemistry teachers are asked to teach physics, they are often a little skeptical. But the Physics First team has been able to change their minds through the excellent curriculum they promote. Dr. Kosztin describes their recent experience as follows: “By the time we finished the program, they were all so enthusiastic to go back and teach, because the curriculum is developed so that everything the students learn, they learn by doing.” By experiencing a method where everything is hands-on, the teachers could see the excitement involved passing on knowledge of a difficult subject.

This initiative for high school teachers also helped Dr. Kosztin with structuring her own classwork. When she taught a physics course for education majors, she began by applying the theory behind the Physics First curriculum, teaching a lab-based course in which everyone learns by conducting his or her own experiments. Application of this model was a bigger change for Dr. Kosztin than she had originally anticipated. As she puts it, “I’m there more to facilitate, and it’s hard to stand back and not give them the answer.” The recurring theme is very clear: Dr. Kosztin has so much fun teaching that it’s hard for her to stop!

Even with such a huge amount of effort and innovative energy invested into teaching and classroom improvement, Dr. Kosztin’s rewards can prove relatively modest. She acknowledges that “as a teacher, whenever something is going badly you know it, but when things go well nobody bothers to tell you.” However, what her students do tell her is central and important: that her classes literally change their way of thinking. She recalls one group who good-naturedly complained that they couldn’t even eat a simple meal anymore without thinking about friction and the forces involved in holding a spoon. With a chuckle Dr. Kosztin observes, “that’s what makes me feel good–when the students come back and say 'Hey! That really makes sense!'”