Gladding, Selen, and Stelzer win APS's 2013 Excellence in Education Award


Siv Schwink

smartPhysics methodology and curriculum improve conceptual learning and higher-order thinking

In recognition of their sustained commitment to excellence in physics education, Professors Gary Gladding, Mats Selen, and Tim Stelzer have been selected by the American Physical Society to receive the 2013 Excellence in Education Award.
The award citation reads:
For the creative application of physics education research results with components of modern technology to create a new pedagogy for an introductory physics curriculum that substantially changes the roles of the instructors and students and, as measured through research, provides significant and nationally recognized learning benefits.
About five years ago, Gladding, Selen and Stelzer developed smartPhysics, a new learning environment for the first year of introductory calculus-based physics (Physics 211 and Physics 212). And while the foundational subject matter of the introductory courses remains primarily the same, the way this content is introduced and explored with students results in a whole new learning experience.
The team achieved this by instituting sweeping changes across the board. The smartPhysics curriculum is delivered in three integrated and interactive phases: first, fifteen-minute web-based animated PreLectures introduce students to base content prior to class; then, lecture content is guided by assessments of students’ understanding of the introductory material; and finally, an online homework system delivers interactive tutorials and immediate assessments.
The demonstrated results of the team’s new pedagogical approach include improved overall student comprehension, coupled with a greater sense of enjoyment in learning physics. This in turn directly correlates to higher student retention and an expressed improvement in instructor satisfaction.
“Our most valuable time with our students is the time when we are face to face,” said Stelzer. “By providing content in an easily-accessible format before the lecture, we can spend more time on activities that actually apply that new knowledge in class.”  
The lectures have been transformed to promote instructor-student interaction by incorporating peer instruction and active learning segments. These activities are enhanced by the use of a wireless student response system, the i>clicker, that was jointly invented and developed by Gladding, Selen, Stelzer, and graduate student Benny Brown, and is now in use by over two million students at more than nine hundred institutions.
Chicago State University Physics Professor Mel Sabella began using the curriculum while it was still under development, and continues to use it today.
“When I began my position at Chicago State University in 2001, Gary, Tim and Mats were instrumental in helping me bring innovative instructional materials to the physics classes I was teaching,” said Sabella. “Throughout the evolution of the smartPhysics curriculum, I was constantly impressed by their willingness to listen to suggestions, comments, and concerns, and by their level of commitment to a diverse student body that included my students at an inner city university, as well as students at highly selective research universities. Their work has clearly had a national impact.”
University of Washington Physics Professor David Hertzog said, “What Gary, Mats, and Tim have done is modernize the delivery of Introductory Physics in a way that just works with today's students. Our department at UW has committed to smartPhysics. It's clever, relevant, accurate, and fun. From an instructor's perspective, it's a delight—I've been re-energized in teaching these materials.”
Gladding attributes the success of the smartPhysics project to the long-term commitment of Physics Illinois to continually refining its course offerings.
 “This award is an outgrowth of the departmental effort begun almost fifteen years ago to improve the instruction in the introductory calculus-based courses,” said Gladding. “This project was later extended to improving the introductory algebra-based courses, as well. The success of the project can be attributed to the hard work of many faculty members and the introduction of materials and methods inspired by physics education research.”
About ten years ago, a physics education research group was formed at Physics Illinois, to study how students learn physics and to create more effective instructional materials. Gladding, Selen and Stelzer currently devote the bulk of their research time to projects in this group.
Not content to rest on their laurels, the team has embarked on two new projects this year. First, along with Professor Jose Mestre, the team has begun a project aimed at improving the retention of students with majors in the sciences and engineering. The ultimate goal of this project is to develop two online tools, first a diagnostic tool that can provide an accurate assessment of each student’s understanding prior to an exam, and eventually an intelligent tutoring tool that can help students address their areas of weakness.
The second project the team has begun work on is the development and evaluation of an inexpensive hand-held wireless device, called IOLab, that integrates a large collection of sensors (accelerometer, magnetometer, gyroscope, barometer, thermometer, force probe, light intensity, speaker, microphone, EKG, and more) with an online content delivery system, to enable students to explore many key introductory physics concepts on their own. At a unit cost of about $40, the device will also provide a hands-on laboratory experience for online learners and students at underfunded public schools.
The Excellence In Education Award will be presented to the team at a special ceremonial session during the April APS meeting in Denver.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grants No. 0817185, 0831820, and 1122534. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
MS would like to acknowledge the continued support and encouragement of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.