IOP grants help researchers who want to look at how undergraduates are taught physics

13 April 2016

Research groups at three universities will soon submit applications to study aspects of undergraduate physics education after receiving grants from the IOP to help them to develop their bids.


The IOP’s Supporting Physics Higher Education Research (SPHERE) scheme was set up to stimulate research into university-level physics education, in particular by helping researchers with the financial costs of preparing the best possible grant proposals.

The IOP hopes that the first applications – due to be submitted by autumn 2016 – will pave the way for others and show that there is a need for earmarked money for pedagogical research as well as for clear routes to access finance from funding bodies.

IOP grants totalling £28,000 have gone to research groups headed by principal investigators at the universities of Durham, St Andrews and Portsmouth. At Durham, a team headed by Dr Pippa Petts proposes to look at troublesome concepts in core physics for first-years and how to help with the transition from school to university, particularly for non-traditional students. Petts said her team was delighted to have received a seed grant of £8,600 from the IOP.

She said: “Our aim now is to forge a strong collaboration with other interested departments from across the UK and Ireland, and to develop an ambitious proposal that will benefit our physics curriculum development.”

A research group led by Dr Antje Kohnle at St Andrews has received £10,000 to develop a proposal to look at the potential of using tailored visual representations to enhance physics students’ understanding and interactive simulations to enhance their skills. Kohnle said: “The funding is allowing us to build up a research team including social scientists, with overlapping fields of expertise to best focus on these key areas, and will go towards supporting a multi-institutional comparative pilot study that will feed into our full research proposal.”

A team led by Dr Chris Dewdney at Portsmouth received £9,400 to develop a proposal to research the role of computational physics in undergraduate degrees. Dewdney said: “The SPHERE funding stimulated the identification of this important research topic and the formation of our research team. The aim of our research is to address the important question of how computational physics is best implemented within the core of physics degrees to enhance student conceptual development.”

The IOP’s head of education, Charles Tracy, said: “It is really important that university teachers have access to research that helps them to choose and use the best pedagogical approaches for developing their students’ knowledge and understanding of physics.

“It is also important that the UK begins to develop the skills, reputation and funding streams for carrying out excellent research in this area.

“We hope that the seed funding awarded to these three groups will be the beginning of sustainable and well-regarded research activity in the UK and that, ultimately, we can help to increase what we know works best for teaching and learning physics at university.”

Olivia Fleming, director of services at the Higher Education Academy, said: “We welcome this initiative by the Institute of Physics to provide funding for pedagogical research so that students can benefit from the best possible teaching experience.”

The IOP will be supporting those who received SPHERE grants by giving opportunities for peer review. In the future the Institute aims to help with the submission of more than just the three funded proposals.

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