John R. Thompson

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

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

Office: 223 Bennett Hall

Phone #: (207) 581-1030

thompsonj <at> maine <dot> edu

Recent Abridged CV (January 2017)

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. 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.
  2. Student understanding 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. Primary mathematics area is calculus (single- and multivariable).
  3. The preparation and professional development of K-12 teachers to teach physics and physical science. In particular, how teachers recognize student conceptual difficulties with the content, and what they do to help students learn.


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

  • construction and use of multivariable coordinate system differential elements
  • integration in the context of process variables and state functions
  • 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 (recent article)
  • probability in the context of statistical distributions

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 (recent 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

R.R. Bajracharya and J.R. Thompson, “The analytical derivation game: A common epistemic game for solving mathematically based physics problems,” Physical Review Physics Education Research 12, 010124 (2016).

T.I. Smith, D.B. Mountcastle, and J.R. Thompson, “Student understanding of the Boltzmann factor,” Physical Review ST Physics Education Research 11, 020123 (2015).

T.I. Smith, W.M. Christensen, D.B. Mountcastle, and J.R. Thompson, “Identifying student difficulties with heat engines, entropy, and the Carnot cycle,” Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 11, 020116 (2015).

T.I. Smith, J.R. Thompson and D.B. Mountcastle, “Student Understanding of Taylor Series Expansions in Statistical Mechanics,” Physical Review ST Phys. Educ. Res. 9, 020110 (2013).

W.M. Christensen and J.R. Thompson, “Investigating graphical representations of slope and derivative without a physics context,” Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 8, 023101 (2012).

J.R. Thompson, W.M. Christensen, and M.C. Wittmann, “Preparing future teachers to anticipate student difficulties in physics in a graduate-level course in physics, pedagogy, and education research,” Physical Review ST Phys. Educ. Res. 7, 010108 (2011); reprinted in Teacher Education in Physics: Research, Curriculum, and Practice, D.E. Meltzer and P.S. Shaffer, Eds., 91-102 (American Physical Society, 2011).  This book was distributed to every physics department chair in the United States.

M.J. O’Brien and J.R. Thompson, “Effectiveness of ninth-grade physics in Maine: Conceptual understanding,” The Physics Teacher 47(4), 234-239 (2009).

M.C. Wittmann and J.R. Thompson, “Integrated approaches in physics education: A graduate level course in physics, pedagogy, and education research,” American Journal of Physics 76(7), 677-683 (2008).

R.P. Springuel, J.R. Thompson, and M.C. Wittmann, “Applying clustering to statistical analysis of student reasoning about two-dimensional kinematics,” Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 3, 020107 (2007).  Erratum.

Peer-reviewed conference proceedings

R. R. Bajracharya, J. R. Thompson, and J.L. Docktor, “Students’ visual attention while answering graphically-based fundamental theorem of calculus questions,” Proceedings of the 18th Annual Conference on Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education, pp. 1011-1013 (Mathematical Association of America, 2015).

R. R. Bajracharya and J. R. Thompson, “Student application and understanding of the fundamental theorem of calculus at the mathematics-physics interface,” Proceedings of the 17th Annual Conference on Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education (Mathematical Association of America, 2014).

J. W. Clark, J. R. Thompson and D. B. Mountcastle, “Comparing Student Conceptual Understanding of Thermodynamics in Physics and Engineering,” in 2012 Physics Education Research Conference, N.S. Rebello, P. Engelhardt, A.D. Churukian, eds., AIP Conference Proceedings 1513, 102-105 (2013).

T. I. Smith, D. B. Mountcastle and J. R. Thompson, “Identifying Student Difficulties with Conflicting Ideas in Statistical Mechanics,” in 2012 Physics Education Research Conference, N.S. Rebello, P. Engelhardt, A.D. Churukian, eds., AIP Conference Proceedings 1513, 386-389 (2013).

R. R. Bajracharya, T. M. Wemyss, J. R. Thompson, “Student interpretation of the signs of definite integrals using graphical representations,” in 2011 Physics Education Research Conference, C. Singh, N.S. Rebello, P. Engelhardt, eds., AIP Conference Proceedings 1413, 111-114 (2012).

  • Finalist, 2011 PERC (Physics Education Research Conference) Proceedings Paper Award, given by the Physics Education Research Leadership and Organizing Committee.  Selected as a finalist because it is noteworthy in terms of the quality of research, readability and impact on the PER Community.

T. M. Wemyss, R. Bajracharya, J. R. Thompson, and J. F. Wagner, “Student understanding of integration in the context and notation of thermodynamics: Concepts, representations, and transfer,” in Proceedings of the 14th Annual Conference on Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education, eds. S. Brown, S. Larsen, K. Marrongelle, M. Oehrtman (Mathematical Association of America, 2011).

J.M. Hawkins, J.R. Thompson, and M.C. Wittmann, E.C. Sayre, and B.W. Frank, “Students’ Responses To Different Representations Of A Vector Addition Question,” in 2010 Physics Education Research Conference, M. Sabella, C. Singh, N.S. Rebello, eds., AIP Conference Proceedings 1289, 165-168 (2010).

T.I. Smith, J.R. Thompson and D.B. Mountcastle, “Addressing Student Difficulties with Statistical Mechanics: The Boltzmann Factor,” in 2010 Physics Education Research Conference, M. Sabella, C. Singh, N.S. Rebello, eds., AIP Conference Proceedings 1289, 305-308 (2010).

  • Finalist, 2010 PERC Proceedings Paper Award
  • Cited in Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering, Susan R. Singer, Natalie R. Nielsen, and Heidi A. Schweingruber, Editors; Committee on the Status, Contributions, and Future Directions of Discipline-Based Education Research; Board on Science Education; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; National Research Council (2012).


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