University of Maryland Physics Education Research Group

UMd PERG PageTitle

Learning the Language of Science:
Advanced Math for Concrete Thinkers

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Physics Education Research has taught us how to teach introductory university physics more effectively. Can these same techniques be used to develop a more efficient instruction for physics majors at the advanced level?

Many other science professions, such as biology, are seeing themselves in increasing need of including more mathematics in an already jam-packed curriculum. Can we learn how to teach students how to use advanced math in science when they may have more limited interest and training in math than physics majors do?

Many college students fail in their goals to become scientists and many scientists and engineers are blocked from modern developments in their discipline by their inability to master advanced mathematical topics. While a few students are thrilled and energized by abstract linear algebra, differential equations, and Fourier transforms, more concrete thinkers can see these topics as insurmountable barriers. A major difficulty many students have learning to use math in physics is not that they can't "do the math," but that they don't understand what it means to use math in science. Math is the language of science, but students and their instructors often focus on the grammatical rules of the language and ignore the semantics -- how math can be used to make sensible meaning.

Over the past 20 years, the PI and his colleagues have been studying student learning and the use of technology in physics education at the introductory level. This research has shown that an understanding of how students learn (or fail to learn) combined with appropriate technological tools can create learning environments that produce dramatic improvements both in student learning and in their attitude towards the subject.

This project will apply the ideas developed in the PIs' work in introductory physics to the more complex mathematical structures and tools of upper division science courses. The project will combine research into student learning with modern pedagogy and computer technology to create a set of non-traditional lessons and activities. The results of this project will be both an improved understanding of the barriers to students' learning advanced math for science and new tools to help them surmount those barriers. The readings, active-learning lessons, and non-traditional problems prepared for this project will be distributed openly via the web.

Staff Contact Information

NamePhone (301-40+)OfficeEMail

Redish, Joe
(Project Director)

5-6120 Toll 1308
Hammer, David 5-8188 Toll 1310
Gupta, Ayush 5-6184 Toll 1320
Bing, Thomas 5-5983 Toll 1322

Mailing Address

Department of Physics
University of Maryland

College Park, MD 20742-4111

Fax: 301-314-9531


Work supported in part by a grant from the US National Science Foundation. 

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Maintained by University of Maryland PERG
Comments and questions may be directed to E. F. Redish

Last modified May 5, 2007