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Making Physics Accessible: An Interview with Luke Nearhood

Posted on Tuesday, April 30, 2024

I sat with Luke in OSU’s historic Memorial Union mezzanine with students buzzing all about, but soon tuned it all out as Luke began describing his research.  At the ARCS picnic last fall, I had spoken to Luke about his research and was intrigued as I had not ever heard of the concept of researching the effectiveness of teaching techniques in STEM. In Luke’s case, he researches Physics Education in the College of Science, specifically teaching and learning physics. Luke’s advisor is Dr. Patti Hamerski whose primary focus is how students learn at the intersection of computing and physics.

Physics is fundamental and crucial to many fields of study in STEM, and yet, in my experience as an engineering student many moons ago, it was a “weed-out” course, meant to separate those who could hack engineering and those that couldn’t.  Physics was feared! I’m sure it’s better now, but still an OSU professor, Dr. Doris Li, in the College of Science, recently wrote a paper that showed students self-efficacy (their belief that they know physics) actually went down after their physics class[i].  Luke wants to make physics more accessible to more people by answering the question; how can we teach in a way that focuses on effectively learning the principles of physics?

He is using an established model, called the Activity Theory framework, to break the student experience in a learning environment into individual components. This framework allows you to examine how individuals engage in purposeful activities within social and cultural contexts, emphasizing the interaction between the person, their environment, and the task at hand. It hypothesizes that learning, in this case, is shaped by the dynamic interplay of these factors, influencing cognitive processes, motivations, and outcomes. This is where Luke thrives, at the intersection of physics and human behavior. 

This research requires a lot of observation in the classroom and physics lab combined with in-depth interviews with physics students.  Using the Activity Theory framework, he’ll break down the educational process into individual components, look at how they interplay and what factors can be emphasized to more effectively learn physics.

Luke is a second-year ARCS scholar supported by ARCS member dues. He is using his ARCS funds to pay down his student loans.  He has an undergraduate degree from Rochester Institute for Technology in Rochester New York.  At OSU he is the Vice President for Bargaining for the local American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which is also affiliated with AFL-CIO and Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE) where he is the bargaining officer who coordinates efforts in Union negotiations.  If there is one thing I’ve learned about Luke, he does not shy away from complex issues!

By Meleah Ashford, Board Member

[i] Incidentally, this phenomenon was even more pronounced for female as compared to male students.