The difficult questions that educational researchers must address are ultimately broader than methodological and disciplinary boundaries. We must have multiple disciplines working together.

Many university students have difficulty distinguishing between temperature and energy, or they mistakenly think that temperature is a good measure of energy in a system. To improve students' comprehension of concepts that are difficult to understand in science and engineering education, Professor of Education Katharyn Nottis is collaborating with colleagues in Bucknell's College of Engineering. Together they are developing methods to address and evaluate previously identified misconceptions in thermodynamics and heat transfer. The project is supported by a $364,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Nottis is working with colleagues Mike Prince, professor of chemical engineering, and Margot Vigeant, associate professor of chemical engineering, to develop two concept inventories, which are extensive multiple choice tests designed to assess students' understanding, in this case, of heat transfer and thermodynamics.

"We have a 'marriage' here of content expertise and educational psychology," says Nottis. "My engineering colleagues develop the concept inventory questions, because they are the content experts, and I examine the psychometric properties to determine the reliability and validity of the instrument. We then test those instruments, and we have also begun to examine the impact of inquiry-based interventions on students' understanding."

Nottis' collaboration with engineering educators is just one of the many partnerships she has established in her researching and teaching. "Partnerships are a key part of everything I do," she says. "As a researcher not of subject matter but of issues in learning and assessment that cross disciplinary boundaries, I feel strongly that many of the answers to the pressing educational problems we face need to be addressed through collaboration."

One of those partnerships has allowed Nottis to develop a course called Teaching in Diverse Environments. The course is designed for Bucknell students who are interested in education or who are planning to teach. Working with New Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite one-room schools, the students collaborate with each other to research, plan and teach lessons on topics in environmental science. Previous topics have included soils, stream health, diminishing songbird populations and disappearing honeybees -- subjects that are relevant to the Anabaptist way of life. Nottis asks her students not only to apply their knowledge of child development and science, but also to make certain that the lessons are culturally appropriate, religiously sensitive and understandable to students whose first language is Pennsylvania German.

"The difficult questions that educational researchers must address are ultimately broader than methodological and disciplinary boundaries," she says. "To succeed, we must have multiple disciplines working together."

Posted Sept. 13, 2011