Dean A. Zollman

Kansas State University
2004 DTS Award

Dr. Dean A. Zollman
Distinguished University Professor of Physics
Kansas State University

KSU Physics Education Group Website

NSF Award Recognition


Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. Dean A. Zollman.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab - the environment in which you work with students - what impression would s/he leave with?

His/her impression would depend on the topic, the type of students and even where we are in the learning process about a particular topic. I tend to vary the learning experience considerably to meet the needs and objectives at the moment. In most cases I would hope that the visitor would come away with the impression that the students are learning rather than I am teaching. That is, the students are actively engaged in a process that leads to better understanding of the principles of physics rather than me telling the students what they need to know. However, occasionally, the learning process is best dealt with by providing information for the students. So, a visitor who came to the class several times would see several different methods of learning and teaching. I would hope that the overall impression is that I modify the learning process to work best with the situation at hand and that the style of teaching and learning changes frequently.

What brought you to an interest in "advancing the frontiers of education" and to connecting your research to that work?

I am somewhat different from most DTS Awardees in that my research is about the teaching and learning of physics. Thus, connecting the research and learning/teaching was automatic. I became interested in this type of research when I first had the opportunity to teach a physics course for non-science students. I was amazed at how little they were learning. After I got past blaming it on them, I began to become interested in why students had difficulty learning physics and how we could improve the situation. Now, I have focused on trying to understand students’ learning in physics for over 30 years.

Were there risks in doing this? What were they? What made you persevere? How have you documented the successes of your educational efforts?

I had the fortune of obtaining a tenure track position which was in a Department of Physics and was to focus on teaching and learning issues. The initial appointment was in 1972, so this was one of the first tenure-track appointment of someone who was hired to conduct physics education research. However, that did not make the situation risk-free. At the time, the KSU Physics Department wanted someone to “fix” some problems in the lower level physics courses. At the same time I was told that I was to conduct research in physics education, obtain grants, have grad students and all of the other things that any other faculty member in a research physics department should do. Fixing problems and doing physics education research are not always compatible, at least if one wants to have some time for the rest of one’s life. So, the biggest risk was that the faculty would only value part of what I did. Fortunately, that did not happen, and I was rewarded for a variety of accomplishments.

I persevered because I enjoyed what I was doing and I felt that I was causing change – both at KSU and nationally. I have had a number of colleagues who have made this type of work a joy and have helped me be creative in a variety of ways. (The most important of these colleagues has been my wife, Jackie Spears.) Also, students at all levels have been critical to helping me “keep at it.” My former grad students have jobs that they like. Now, many of them are involved in similar efforts. Occasionally, I hear from undergrads who took only one course with me and remember learning something. All of these reasons make this type of endeavor fun, interesting and worthwhile.

Because my research area is physics education and I need to show contributions just as any other faculty member in a physics department, I must document my efforts through publications, web sites and teaching materials. The Web site for our research group contains much of what we have done.

What connections have been of most value in pursuing these efforts, within your campus community as well as in the broader professional communities to which you belong?

On the KSU campus administrators at all levels have been strong supporters of the scholarship of teaching. As introduced many years ago by Ernest Boyer, this idea means much more than just good teaching but applying scholarly approaches to the teaching/learning process. Thus, at both the Departmental and Central Administration levels I have had good local connections.

I have also worked with colleagues at other universities, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Conducting joint research and development efforts with others who have different perspectives but similar interests has been (and continues to be) very important.

Finally I cannot overstate the importance of connections to federal funding agencies, particularly NSF. I have been funded to complete a variety of different types of projects. The confidence of NSF staff that I could accomplish something, even if it did seem a little outside the norm, has been extremely valuable.

For faculty at an early career stage, it is difficult to figure out how to balance responsibilities for research and teaching while having a personal life; any advice - for them and for faculty at any stage?

That is a hard question to answer. I do think that the pressures on young faculty in the sciences and engineering are very high now. The large start-up packages translate to large expectations for both publications and grants. Combined with the pressures of teaching some young faculty feel that they have little time for anything else. However, I do not have any firm guidelines that I could give someone else. I have always tried to operate so that I feel satisfied with all aspects of my life. At times that has meant spending more time with the family and at others times concentrating more on research and teaching. In all cases I want to feel pleased with what I am doing and I want the people closest to me to feel that they are getting adequate attention. (That’s not a very good answer, but the question is difficult to address because it is different for each person.)

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and education?

The primary component is that the institution recognizes and rewards the scholarship of teaching. The institution’s administration, from Department Head through President, must show that it understands the need for scholarly activity about the learning and teaching process. They must show through continual actions that good teaching is not enough and that at least some of its faculty need to be involved in applying the same rigor to improving teaching that is applied to other scholarly activities.

What can be done at the national level to encourage and support efforts like yours and those of many other leading agents of change on campuses across the country?

Part of the answer is the same as for the previous question; all of us need to recognize the need for scholarship in this field as well as for excellence in classroom teaching. We also need to foster a climate in which we build communities that cross both discipline and institutional boundaries. The problems that we are addressing are difficult and constantly changing, so each of us needs lots of help to make any real progress.

Please tell us about the project that you will be undertaking as part of the DTS award. How can others be involved with and/or continue to be informed about your work?

The overall goal is to help pre-health professionals understand how contemporary physics is applied to the field in which they wish to work. (At our university these students are not limited to human health care. We include future veterinarians as well.) We are aiming at two changes in the present course that these students take. First, we want them to see and understand more about contemporary topics in physics. Second, we wish to introduce these topics in the context of their interests.

The project has two components – one involving research into student understanding; the other, development of teaching materials. The goal of the research component is the enhancement of the existing research base on how students transfer their knowledge of physics to other topics. The principal hypothesis of this component of our work is that students can build models that aid in the understanding of physical phenomena and applications to tools such as surgical lasers and positron emission tomography.

Building on this research foundation we will create modular instructional materials. The units will emphasize hands-on activities, combine written materials, interactive multimedia and utilize visualization techniques. Each module will be relatively short and will be developed so that teachers can substitute it for existing, traditional materials without a need for a complete revision in the physics course. This substitution approach offers instructors a way to make incremental change and thus has a better chance of being adopted than one which requires an entire new course.

We are working with two groups in Germany and one other project in the US to develop the materials. Thus, we hope to bring a variety of perspectives to addressing the issue of improving the pre-professional students’ understanding of the applications of contemporary physics.

We will keep the project Web site, http://web.phys.ksu.edu/mmmm, up-to-date. As we get drafts of materials completed, we will put them there for anyone to use. Feedback is always welcome. We are also interested in working with anyone who has an interested in teaching contemporary physics in a medical context.