Colloquium 1 December: Dr. Eric Burkholder, Auburn University

This Friday, December 1, Dr. Eric Burkholder, from Auburn University, will be presenting a Colloquium in the Department of Physics and Astronomy entitled Using real-world problem-solving to target structural inequities in introductory physics. The talk begins at 3:15 pm in 140 Bennett Hall. Refreshments will be served at 3:00 pm.


Many groups of people continue to be excluded from opportunities to pursue careers in STEM due to social and economic structures in the United States. Many of these structures have been identified such as access to high-quality pre-college education, lack of role models in STEM, and even overt harassment and discrimination. We have explored some of these structural barriers using institutional data and found that different marginalized groups face different barriers to STEM degree completion. Furthermore, the barriers a particular marginalized group faces can vary across different institutions and disciplines. I will then discuss an extensive active-learning intervention that we developed to help target systemic barriers to STEM degree attainment due to differences in the quality of pre-college education. The intervention is based on a theoretical framework of “deliberate practice” of key scientific problem-solving skills in real-world contexts. The problems used in the course and their solutions have little resemblance to what students encounter in high school physics, thereby reducing the dependence of course performance on the high school physics preparation. Versions of this course were taught at a highly selective private and a lightly selective public university. The students who took the course learned the physics content knowledge they needed for future courses, particularly in engineering, and their problem-solving skills improved substantially. Furthermore, their course performance had much less correlation with their incoming physics preparation than was the case for the outcomes from the traditional Physics 1 courses at both institutions: in one case the correlation dropped from r=0.62 to 0.14, and on the other case the correlation dropped from r=0.56 to 0.26. We have also shown that this problem-solving course is correlated with improved performance in Physics 2, and increased persistence in STEM. These findings suggest this course design can be a more equitable version of the traditional Physics 1 course, and hence particularly beneficial for marginalized students.

Dr. Burkholder’s bio

Eric Burkholder is an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Auburn University. Eric received his B.S. in Chemical & Biomolecular engineering at Cornell University, and an M.S. and Ph.D. in soft condensed-matter physics at the California Institute of Technology. He completed his postdoctoral work in physics and engineering education at Stanford University working with Carl Wieman. Eric’s research synthesizes fundamental studies of scientific problem-solving and assessment design with equity and persistence work in STEM. He is primarily interested in how we can reduce the influence of pre-college inequities on educational outcomes in post-secondary STEM education.