Supported SiteSupported Site Florida International University: Course & Lab Reform

Course & Lab Reform


  • We hired and trained a total of 37 physics Learning Assistants who served in the reformed Physics I labs, reformed Physics II labs, or Modeling and Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE) studio courses (based on programs developed at Arizona State University and Rutgers University respectively). 24 of the LAs were new to the LA program this year.
  • We again offered the science and math pedagogy course, Seminar in Science Education – Science Educational Theory and Practice, to all first semester Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy LAs. 24 LAs enrolled in the Fall and 27 LAs plus 3 additional students enrolled in the Spring.
  • We provided 8 LAs for three modeling instruction introductory physics courses and one ISLE course. Modeling courses average a factor of 2.5 larger normalized gains for the Force Concept Inventory and a factor of 4 lower failure rate than traditional courses at FIU.
  • We continued to operate all of the Physics I labs (20 sections in the Fall and 14 sections in the Spring) with one or two LAs and one TA in each section. New to the lab reform is weekly two-hour LA and TA specific training and formal observations of each LA and TA.
  • We ran pilot sections of reformed Physics II labs (4 in the Fall, 8 in the Spring) using Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE) curriculum. The lab reform included weekly two-hour TA and LA training.
  • Lab materials were revised to meet needs of FIU curriculum. In the Physics I labs, one new lab was designed (How to do Well in Physics) by PhysTEC faculty and one lab (Friction) was rewritten by the TAs, facilitated by the TIR and a PER grad student. In the Physics II labs, three new labs were designed and the ISLE curriculum was adjusted to fit the needs of the newly reformed Physics II labs.
  • As a result of the success in the Introductory Physics II labs, FIU PhysTEC will reform all of the Introductory Physics II labs starting in the Fall 2010 semester.
  • Students in the LA-enabled classes, the LAs, the TAs, and the faculty teaching the courses responded positively to the implementations. Students reported that reformed labs help them better understand physics; LAs reported that they found teaching to be complex, intriguing, and rewarding; TAs became a part of the lab reform and felt that their ideas were valued; and faculty have become more interested in what we are doing. LAs have shared pedagogy with faculty in an effort to improve science and mathematics education at FIU.

Sustainability/Institutional Buy-In

  • FIU has adopted laboratory reforms for Fall 2010 in all Physics I and II Labs.
  • FIU Physics department has requested at least 38 Physics LAs in Fall 2010 to support the reform labs. This is the result of an increase in lab sections to meet student demand and the request by the department to include 2 LAs per section.
  • A form of the LA component of FIU PhysTEC reform will be implemented by the Geology/Earth Sciences and Chemistry Departments in Fall 2010.
  • FIU has reformed its Science and Mathematics Education programs with the aid of the PhysTEC faculty and former TIR. These new education programs include LA-like recruitment and initial experiences and share an introductory seminar modeled after the Colorado LA Seminar.
  • The Modern Physics Instructor has requested help of an LA to reform his modern physics course in Fall 2010/Spring 2011. We are currently evaluating curricular options and have identified a lead LA for the course.
  • The Intermediate E&M Instructor has requested help of an LA to reform his course in Fall 2010/Spring 2011. He is working with University of Colorado to implement their reform materials in his classroom.
  • Faculty using LAs in classes will continue to do so.


  • Faculty should be more involved in reform efforts. Their students are participating in reformed labs or have taken a reformed course, and some of their students (who are now LAs) are trained in pedagogy and run the reformed labs. LAs and students are beginning to demand reformed courses.
  • Experienced LAs are not as connected to faculty as new LAs. Advanced LAs do not take the seminar, and thus have less time to interact with faculty. We are planning a regular monthly meeting to foster relations with all LAs.
  • A plan should be established for placing LAs in local science classrooms with experienced teachers. One advanced LA requested placement in a high school classroom, but did not follow through and the placement did not occur.

Next Steps

  • We will better involve additional physics faculty with reform efforts. This will include: 1) establishment of a Discipline-Based Education Research meeting, where faculty will discuss education reform (supported by the new HHMI grant and part of the SMTI commitment), 2) providing significant resources to faculty reforming their courses, through the HHMI grant, 3) inviting faculty to attend weekly lab training or pedagogy seminars, 4) supporting reform efforts in Modern Physics and Intermediate E&M.
  • We will better support experienced LAs by 1) creating an LA mentoring role called “Master LAs,” 2) strongly encouraging continuing LAs to enroll in more advanced education courses, and 3) scheduling to meet with experienced LAs regularly.
  • A plan will be established for LAs working with local teachers that include LA and teacher expectations, weekly meetings, and LA reflections.

LA-Enabled Courses

  • LAs were assigned to three calculus-based physics sections that employ physics Modeling Instruction and one section that employs ISLE (Investigative Science Learning Environment). One or two LAs worked in each section of these reformed studio courses each semester. The courses are Introductory Physics I and II.
  • Mathematics LAs were assigned to 15 professors in 17 mathematics courses.
  • LAs acted as peer-to-peer facilitators for group work and whiteboard presentations. They also served as mentors and a source of encouragement to struggling students. In some of the mathematics courses, LAs also served as study group leaders outside of regularly scheduled class times.

Lab Reform – Tutorial-based labs for Physics I

  • After two successful semesters of running approximately half of the introductory Physics I labs (Spring 08 and Fall 08), FIU PhysTEC was asked to take over the Physics I labs entirely as of Spring 2009 (between 14 and 20 sections per semester). FIU PhysTEC continues to operate all of the Physics I labs. These labs include students from both the calculus and non-calculus based physics courses. This effort includes training the graduate teaching assistants alongside the Learning Assistants. The lab reform uses Introductory Physics Tutorials and Interactive Lecture Demonstrations (ILDs) developed at the University of Maryland and emphasizes collaborative learning approaches. See Assessment document for results for Force Concept Inventory, MPEX 2 and CLASS.
  • Each reformed lab had one or two LAs to work with the graduate teaching assistant. LAs and TAs met every Monday with PhysTEC faculty and the TIR to prepare for that week’s lab. During Fall 09 the LAs and TAs worked through the tutorial and ILD (if applicable) for the week. During Spring 10 a pre-semester training was developed and implemented and the Monday training was reformed to better address LA- and TA-specific needs.
  • LA and TA pre-semester training was developed and facilitated by the TIR and a PER grad student, repectively. The sessions were designed to set the tone of respect, valuing of all ideas, and reflecting about teaching. It also served to set expectations which were agreed upon by LAs and TAs, and to share logistical information.
  • The Monday weekly training was changed from a one-hour to a two-hour training session in Spring 2010. LAs and TAs participated in separate training during the first hour, and then met together during the second hour. The LA training was run by TIR Diane Crenshaw and the TA training was run by PER graduate student Vashti Sawtelle.
  • LAs performed that week’s lab and role-played LA and student. This allowed LAs to identify conceptual difficulties and practice teaching approaches that would encourage students to reflect on and then refine their own conceptual understandings.
  • TAs worked through Instructor Resources (including videos, activities, and worksheets) developed by the University of Maryland. This allowed TAs to see what guided-inquiry instruction looked like and to critque the instructional approaches used by the TAs in the videos. The Instructional Resources aligned with that week’s lab and were adjusted to fit the needs of the TAs.
  • The joint TA-LA portion of the weekly training gave TA and LA lab groups the opportunity to review their students’ pretests, identify student preconceptions, and plan how to help students refine their thinking to meet the goals of that week’s lab.
  • Formal observations of each LA and TA were conducted by the TIR, followed by individual debrief sessions. The TIR recorded positive things the LA/TA was doing and noted areas of improvement. During the debrief session, the LA/TA discussed his or her strengths and weeknesses with the TIR and wrote “next steps” to help them improve as instructors.

Lab Reform – Tutorial-based labs for Physics II

  • FIU PhysTEC reformed four pilot sections of Physics II labs during Fall 2009 and eight sections during Spring 2010. All sections (8-14 sections per semester) will be reformed and run by FIU PhysTEC starting in Fall 10. The Physics II labs include students from both the calculus and non-calculus based physics II courses. The reformed lab sections implement ISLE (Investigative Science Learning Environment) from Rutgers University, which emphasizes collaboratively designing and performing experiments to construct knowledge, and using rubrics to assess scientific skills and habits of mind. The reformed lab sections were run by one TA and one or two LAs per section, and the reform included TA and LA training.
  • TAs and LAs participated in two-hour training sessions on Mondays run by the TIR Diane Crenshaw and physics faculty David Brookes, who helped design the ISLE curriculum at Rutgers. During the traing session LAs and TAs worked together in groups of three to perform that week’s lab and role-play LA/TA and student. This allowed LAs and TAs to identify student preconceptions and practice instructional approaches to help facilitate student learning.

Seminar in Physics Education – Science Educational Theory and Practice

  • The PHY 3012 Seminar in Physics Education is the LA seminar course required for the new FIU secondary education teacher preparation degrees in Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, and Earth Science. PHY 3012 (and it equivalent course numbers in the other disciplines) touches on theoretical issues such as conceptual development, conceptual change, collaborative learning, and students’ conceptions of various topics in physics. The course was designed and implemented to introduce physics students to fundamental ideas in physics education.
  • The course was team-taught by PhysTEC faculty, Laird Kramer (Physics) and the FIU TIR, Diane Crenshaw. All of the new LAs were enrolled in the Seminar. During the Fall semester, there were 14 Physics and 10 Math LAs. During the Spring semester there were 13 Physics, 13 Math, and 1 Astronomy LA, plus 3 other students interested in teaching.
  • Students explored teaching methods in the context of doing activities to bolster their own understanding of the related science and/or education concepts. Activities and discussions were framed in the context of assigned readings for the course. Readings include seminal works in physics and some mathematics education research.

Nature of Mathematics and Science

  • SCE4894 Nature of Mathematics and Science is a new course in the new science and mathematics secondary preparation programs. Students in this course will consider how the practices, problems, and purposes of math and science are intrinsically social and what that implies about teaching and learning. The course is common to all science and mathematics programs.
  • The course was taught for the first time by Eric Brewe in Fall 2009. Roughly 10 students signed up for the course. The course will be taught every Fall.

Perspectives on Science Education

  • SCE4194 Perspective on Science Education is a new course in the new science and mathematics secondary preparation programs. This course will help students to develop understanding of the theoretical frameworks and familiarity with literature underpinning mathematics and science education. The course is common to all science and mathematics programs. The mathematics course is MAE 4394, Perspectives on Mathematics Eduation.
  • The course was co-taught for the first time by Eric Brewe and Maria Fernandez in Spring 2010. Roughly 10 students signed up for the course.