John R. Thompson

Professor of Physics
Member, Maine Center for Research in STEM Education
Cooperating Professor of STEM Education

Fellow, American Physical Society

  • B.S. Physics (cum laude), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1990
  • Sc.M. Physics, Brown University, 1992
  • Ph.D. Physics, Brown University, 1998

Office: 117 Bennett Hall

Phone:  (207) 581-1016

Email: thompsonj <at> maine <dot> edu

Recent Abridged CV (October 2023)

Recent Full Curriculum Vita (October 2023)

Google Scholar Page


Website at the Physics Education Research Laboratory:  Group    Personal

Research Interests

Physics Education Research – research on the learning and teaching of physics – including research-based curriculum development.

  1. Student mathematical modeling, and student sensemaking and reasoning at “the mathematics-physics interface”: how student understanding of mathematics concepts influences understanding of physics concepts, and vice-versa; how students apply mathematics to physical situations; how students make physical meaning of mathematics.
  2. Learning and teaching of specific physics concepts at the undergraduate level, at introductory and advanced levels. Identifying specific student conceptual difficulties, and addressing difficulties through development of guided-inquiry instructional materials.


Current active research topics

Student understanding at the interface between mathematics and physics concepts, especially of mathematics that is relevant for understanding certain physics topics

  • student reasoning with mathematics in quantum mechanics, especially eigenequations
  • student connections between vector calculus and physics contexts
  • the extent to which, and how, students evaluate problem solutions
  • using symbolic forms and conceptual blending in modeling equation construction
  • integration in the context of process variables and state functions

Prior and recurring research topics

  • construction and use of multivariable coordinate system differential elements
  • understanding and application of the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus based in graphical representations in mathematics and physics
  • partial differentiation in the contexts of material properties and the Maxwell relations
  • use of Taylor series expansions in statistical mechanics (article)
  • probability in the context of statistical distributions

Previous projects

Student understanding of thermal physics at advanced undergraduate levels in physics
(project overview poster)

  • work, heat transfer, and internal energy, especially related to the use of pressure-volume
    (P-V) diagrams
  • entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics
  • student models for entropy, in the context of ideal gas processes
  • student application of the Second Law to heat engines and thermodynamic cyclic processes (article)
  • comparisons of student understanding across chemical engineering, mechanical engineering and physics

Understanding of teaching and learning in physics by graduate students and teachers, and the interplay between specialized content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge (knowledge of the teaching and learning of a topic).

  • The relationship between teacher content  knowledge, teacher pedagogical knowledge, and student learning, in middle school physical science, in force and motion
  • Part of the Maine Physical Sciences Partnership

Other topics of interest

  • Student understanding of magnetic fields and representations thereof, and in particular of the magnetic structure of flexible refrigerator magnets
  • Student understanding of concepts in 9th- and 12th-grade physics courses:
    investigating the Physics First movement
  • Student understanding of vectors and vector operations
  • Student understanding of two-dimensional kinematics, including the context dependence of that understanding and the interpretations of different representations.  Development and assessment of curriculum that emphasizes conceptual understanding and transfer to different contexts.
  • Conceptual understanding of sound at both the introductory level and among preservice and inservice K-12 teachers.  Development of curriculum on sound aimed at elementary teachers, and on longitudinal waves aimed at introductory physics students.

Recent Publications

Peer-reviewed journal articles

  • W. D. Riihiluoma, Z. Topdemir, and J. R. Thompson, “Network analysis of students’ conceptual understanding of mathematical expressions for probability in upper-division quantum mechanics,” accepted for publication in Physical Review Physics Education Research, July 2024.
  • M. Wawro, A. Piña, J. R. Thompson, Z. Topdemir, and K. Watson, “Student interpretations of eigenequations in linear algebra and quantum mechanics”, International Journal of Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education (2024). doi:10.1007/s40753-024-00241-7.
  • A. Piña, Z. Topdemir, and J. R. Thompson, “Student understanding of eigenvalue equations in quantum mechanics: Symbolic forms and sensemaking analysis,” Physical Review Physics Education Research 20, 010153 (2024).
  • B. P. Schermerhorn and J. R. Thompson, “Making context explicit in equation construction and interpretation: Symbolic blending,” Physical Review Physics Education Research 19, 020149 (2023). (Editors’ Suggestion.)
  • R. Bajracharya, V. L. Sealey, and J. R. Thompson, “Student understanding of the sign of negative definite integrals in mathematics and physics,” accepted for publication in International Journal of Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education, Special Issue on The Teaching and Learning of Definite Integrals, R. Ely & S. R. Jones, Eds. (2023). doi 10.1007/s40753-022-00202-y.
  • S. Van den Eynde, B. P. Schermerhorn, J. Deprez, M. Goedhart, J. R. Thompson, and M. De Cock, “Dynamic conceptual blending analysis to model student reasoning processes while integrating mathematics and physics: A case study in the context of the heat equation,” Physical Review Physics Education Research 16, 010114 (2020).
  • R.P. Springuel, M.C. Wittmann, and J.R. Thompson, “Reconsidering the encoding of data in physics education research,” Physical Review Physics Education Research 15, 020103 (2019). Part of the Focused Collection Quantitative Methods in PER: A Critical Examination.
  • B. P. Schermerhorn and J. R. Thompson, “Physics students’ construction and checking of differential volume elements in an unconventional spherical coordinate system,” Physical Review Physics Education Research 15, 010112 (2019).
  • B. P. Schermerhorn and J. R. Thompson, “Physics students’ construction of differential length vectors in an unconventional spherical coordinate system,” Physical Review Physics Education Research 15, 010111 (2019).
  • R.R. Bajracharya and J.R. Thompson, “Analytical derivation: An epistemic game for solving mathematically based physics problems,” Physical Review Physics Education Research 12, 010124 (2016).

Peer-reviewed conference proceedings

  • Z. Topdemir, M. E. Loverude, J. R. Thompson, “How students reason with derivatives of vector field diagrams,” in T. Dreyfus, A. S. González-Martín, E. Nardi, J. Monaghan & P. W. Thompson (Eds.), The Learning and Teaching of Calculus Across Disciplines – Proceedings of the Second Calculus Conference (pp. 173-176) (2023). MatRIC.
  • A. Pina, Z. Topdemir, J. R. Thompson, “Student understanding of eigenvalue equations in quantum mechanics: Symbolic forms analysis,” Proceedings of the 25th Conference on Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education, Omaha NE (2023).
  • Z. Topdemir, M. E. Loverude, J. R. Thompson, “Physics student understanding of divergence and curl and their constituent partial derivatives,” Proceedings of the 25th Conference on Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education, Omaha NE (2023).
  • W. Riihiluoma, Z. Topdemir, J. R. Thompson, “Applying a symbolic forms lens to probability expressions in upper-division quantum mechanics,” 2022 PERC Proceedings [Grand Rapids, MI, July 13-14, 2022], edited by B. W. Frank, D. Jones, and Q. Ryan (2022). doi:10.1119/
  • W. Riihiluoma, Z. Topdemir, J. R. Thompson, “Using Network Analysis Techniques to Probe Student Understanding of Expressions Across Notations in Quantum Mechanics”, in (Eds.) S. S. Karunakaran & A. Higgins Proceedings of the 24th Annual Conference on Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education, Boston, MA, 1124-1130 (2022).

Service Highlights

  • Chair, University of Maine Department of Physics and Astronomy, July 2017–June 2022, July 2023-present
  • Reviewer, “Upper-level physics curriculum section” in “A Guide to Effective Practices for Physics Programs (EP3)”, S. McKagan, D. A. Craig, M. Jackson, and T. Hodapp, Eds., (American Physical Education Society, College Park, MD, Version 2021.1), 2021.
  • American Physical Society Topical Group on Physics Education Research (GPER)
    • Co-founder, 2014.
    • Executive Committee: Vice Chair, 2016; Chair-Elect, 2017; Chair, 2018; Past Chair, 2019.
  • Participant, Congressional Visits Day, American Physical Society, Washington, DC: 25 January 2017; 1 Feb 2018; 7 June 2018.
  • Co-organizer, 2017 Physics Education Research Conference, “Mathematization in Physics Education Research,” Covington, KY, 26-27 July 2017.
  • Co-organizer, 2017 Transforming Research on Undergraduate STEM Education/ The University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN, 5-9 July 2017; as co-PI of NSF grant DUE-1551038.
  • Member, Editorial Board, Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 1 January 2014 – 31 December 2016.
  • Member, Physics Education Research Leadership and Organizing Council (PERLOC), April 2009 – February 2012; Chair, January 2011 – February 2012.


  • Fellow, American Physical Society, 2023
  • ΦKΦ (2021)
  • Outstanding Referee, Physical Review Journals, American Physical Society, 2020
  • Fulbright Scholar, 2008-2009, School of Physics, Dublin Institute of Technology (now Technological University Dublin), Dublin, Ireland
  • Finalist, 2011 Physics Education Research Conference (PERC) Proceedings Paper Award
  • Finalist, 2010 PERC Paper Award
  • Dean’s Award of Excellence in Engineering Physics program, College of Engineering, 2007-2008
  • Honorary Engineer, Francis Crowe Society, College of Engineering, University of Maine
  • ΣΠΣ (inducted 1989)

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