Inquiry Into Radioactivity Wins Science Magazine Prize

When physics education researcher Andy Johnson first taught at the college level, he worked hard to find just the right way to explain physics concepts to his students. He noticed, though, that his lectures were not hitting home. "I said all these wonderful things, said them just the right way, but I could hear that it wasn't coming across," Johnson said.

Refusing to go on lecturing ineffectively, Johnson started a long-range process of researching what methods of teaching physics were getting the best results. As one result of his exploration, his course materials entitled Inquiry into Radioactivity have been selected to win the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.

The prize was developed to showcase outstanding materials, usable in a wide range of schools and settings, for teaching introductory science courses at the college level. The materials must be designed to encourage students' natural curiosity about how the world works, rather than to deliver facts and principles about what scientists have already discovered. Organized as one free-standing "module," the materials should offer real understanding of the nature of science, as well as providing an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Each month, Science publishes an essay by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The essay about Inquiry into Radioactivity was published on 25 October.

"Improving science education is an important goal for all of us at Science," said Bruce Alberts, Science editor-in-chief emeritus. "We hope to help those innovators who have developed outstanding laboratory modules promoting student inquiry to reach a wider audience. Each winning module will be featured in an article in Science that is aimed at guiding science educators from around the world to these valuable free resources."

Johnson, who grew up in Denver, was always interested in science. As he puts it, he was always interested in how things worked, and he studied physics in college. Even he, however, started to feel a disconnect between what he was interested in and what he was learning. "I was not learning what I wanted," Johnson said. "It was getting pretty stale."

After getting his Master's degree, Johnson taught college physics for two years. It was then that he felt certain the traditional model of teaching physics through lecture classes just wasn't working."Some professors just go right on lecturing," he said. "I don't know how they do it in good conscience."

Johnson started reading articles in the American Journal of Physics on physics education research, and he saw that some educators were getting better results with new methods. He decided to get a Ph.D. at the University of California at San Diego and San Diego State University, where he would study with some of the leaders in the field, including physics education researcher Fred Goldberg.

The curriculum developed at San Diego State University, the Constructing Physics Understanding (CPU) method, had a scheme underlying it that put an emphasis on inquiry. That scheme started with asking students what they thought or knew about a certain topic, followed by a discussion that explored the students' own ideas. Next, some form of experimentation or inquiry was brought in to provide new experiences and food for thought to the students. Throughout, the teacher's role was to guide the students as they followed their own curiosity.

When Johnson went to Black Hills University, where he became the associate director for science education at the Center for the Advancement of Mathematics and Science Education, he brought the CPU curriculum with him. He also made a commitment to helping non-science majors to understand radioactivity and radiation at a time when nuclear power was being reconsidered as an attractive source of electricity.

"If we were going to have a nuclear renaissance, we were going to have to have a radiation-literate population," Johnson said.

Despite his commitment to making students radiation-literate, plus the methods he had adopted during his Ph.D. program, Johnson still had to hone his curriculum to truly reach his students, he said. In order to understand radioactivity, for instance, students needed an understanding of atoms. Ultimately, he developed a special computer simulation that allows students to "build" atoms and then to play with how ions attract and repel, and how unstable isotopes explode, so that his students could develop an understanding of atoms, ions and nuclear stability.

A dramatic highlight of the class occurs when Johnson arranges radioactive antiques, rocks and commercially available radioactive sources around his classroom. "I bring my radioactive sources into the classroom, and the Geiger counters click like crazy." Students are apprehensive when Johnson asks them to touch a radioactive object for an entire minute, although they later learn that the amount of radiation that reaches their finger is about the same amount that would reach it in eight hours if they weren't touching a radioactive source.

"Inquiry into Radioactivity allows students to measure and explore radioactive decay in a relevant context, such as their classroom and homes, allowing them to address common misconceptions revolving around the topic of radioactivity," said Melissa McCartney, associate editor at Science.

Whether confronting his students with the relative risks of radiation, or simply asking them to develop and work on their own questions about the topic, Johnson has to convince his students that what they're doing is worthwhile.

One strategy Johnson has developed is showing students the online comments written by previous students. Some comments say, "Professor Johnson is really great. This is the first time I've ever understood science. I'm really loving this." Others say, "Professor Johnson never teaches us anything. You have to teach yourself. Why am I paying tuition to teach myself?"

Asking students which class they would choose to take, he then reveals that all of the comments come from the same class, Physics 101. "How could they have such a different experience?" he asks his students. "It just depends on what you bring to the class."

VIDEO: Interview with Andy Johnson about the Inquiry into Radioactivity course materials | Courtesy of Radiation and Atomic Literacy for Nonscientists