John R. Thompson

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

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

Office: 117 Bennett Hall

Phone : (207) 581-1015

Email:  thompsonj <at> maine <dot> edu

Most recent CV (short)

Google Scholar page

Research Interests

Physics Education Research – research on the learning and teaching of physics – including research-based curriculum development.  Co-manage research group of 15-20 members, including undergraduates, master’s and doctoral students, and faculty.

  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. Calculus: single variable, multivariable, and vector.
  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 mathematical modeling and sensemaking in physics

  • the extent to which, and how, students evaluate expressions in physics
  • student understanding and construction of vector differential elements in non-Cartesian coordinate systems
  • integration in the context of process variables and state functions
  • student 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
  • student use of Taylor series expansions in statistical mechanics (article)
  • probability in the context of statistical distributions

Previous work: 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
  • comparisons of student understanding across chemical engineering, mechanical engineering and physics

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.

Current Service Highlights

For more information see faculty page.