The History of Physics Education at Purdue University

by Van E. Neie, Professor of Physics, Emeritus

In the early years, especially during the 40's the war created considerable demand for technically trained personnel. Under the mentorship for Karl Lark Horovitz the Purdue Physics Department thus became a major center for the education of young men in the field of electronics. At this time very little research was being done in the field of science education regarding how students learn, so one might say that the best teaching came from those who had more or less a natural talent for it. Moreover, at the time the students were highly motivated to learn so that the combination produced some fairly well-educated students. Individuals that are most remembered for their contributions then and in later years are Irving Geib (1), Isidor Walerstein (1), Vivian Johnson (1)Anna Akeley (1) and Ralph Lefler (1). Lefler would eventually develop a national reputation for work in physics education. Johnson and Walerstein were honored (posthumously) for their outstanding contributions over the years by being included in the inaugural Purdue University Book of Great Teachers in 1998 (2). And for many years, up until computerized labs became the norm, Walerstein's laboratory manual for physics experiments was considered one of the outstanding works in the field. Vivian Johnson received a university award for outstanding teaching and served as an early role model for women in physics.

Little or none of this likely would have transpired had it not been for the groundwork laid by Karl Lark-Horowitz, who chaired the Physics Department from 1925-1958. His considerable accomplishments are chronicled elsewhere(3), but with regard to physics education it should be noted that in 1937 he implemented the Division for Physics Teaching Research, which he headed along with Prof Walerstein. They especially were interested in the special needs of non-science majors and much of the early success in this endeavor can be attributed to Anna Akeley (1). Prof Lark-Horowitz directed several educational reforms in Indiana schools and helped establish the Indiana Section of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

As a result of the Russian's having launched Sputnik in 1957, a national effort was begun to upgrade science education in the United States. The National Science Foundation initiated funding of programs to improve the quality of high school science education. Ralph Lefler (1) saw an opportunity to help high school teachers of physics become better trained both in their subject matter and teaching skills and in 1959, was awarded a major NSF grant to develop a Master's degree program in physics for high school teachers through a series of summer institutes. These were highly successful and were funded for thirteen consecutive summers. The participants in the first few cycles were especially gifted teachers, having been selected from a large pool of national applicants. Many went on to leadership positions in science education at major universities. The curriculum was demanding, but was taught by faculty selected for their ability to teach. Among those contributing to the effort were Don Tendam (1), Irving Geib (1), Isador Walerstein (1), Vivian Johnson (1), Don Schlueter (1), Orland Johnson (1) and Hubert Yearian (1). Ralph Lefler handled the "methods" portion of the curriculum and was held in extremely high regard by all the students. After Lefler retired in 1971, I administered the institute program in its final stages (the last group finished in 1974) and took over the methods courses. The institute ended after NSF decided to invest its resources in other areas of science education.

The late 60's and early 70's saw the beginning of a massive national movement toward curriculum reform. Science educators latched onto the work of learning theorists and behaviorists in an attempt to bring science to students other than the highly motivated "science types." A prominent physicist, Arnold Arons (4), who had a national reputation for teaching excellence, obtained a major NSF grant to develop a curriculum based on scientific inquiry. In particular, he focused his work on the education of prospective elementary teachers. The Purdue Elementary Science Education group (5) received an ancillary grant to try out Aron's materials. A graduate student and I conducted a test of the materials with a section of elementary education majors in the course Physics 210. It was a successful and rewarding year in which we gained many insights into teaching and learning. Unfortunately, the departmental resources were insufficient to carry on the program on a larger scale after the initial funding. We did, however, transfer the knowledge we had gained to changes in how large lecture classes were taught. Indeed, Aron's ideas have come full circle as a result of Lillian McDermott's (6) extension of Aron's work. She produced a highly successful curriculum tool called Tutorials and these are presently being used by David Elmore (1) in Physics 152.

It should be pointed out that while our mainstream courses were taught in a fairly traditional manner, the department was blessed with faculty who knew how to teach effectively in this environment. For many years Don Schlueter(1) established himself as one of the more stellar lecturers, performing a large number of demonstrations and teaching problem solving in rather unique ways. Another notable instructor, who also wrote an introductory physics text, was Solomon Gartenhaus (1). He continues to this day to be one of the more popular lecturers in the department.

In the early 70's the department began experimenting with new courses in an attempt to meet the needs of various constituencies. Because the engineering majors often had difficulty with Physics 152 (the introductory course for engineers), I introduced a preparatory course, Physics 149, that had as its goal the development of basic physics concepts, with emphasis on conceptual as well as mathematical ideas. To meet this goal, I wrote a special text designed for these students. The idea was to bring the Physics 149 students, who historically failed or made low grades in Physics 152, up to the same level as regular students entering Physics 152. Statistics verified that this was, indeed, happening.

In 1976, the Physical Education Department requested that we offer for their constituents a course tailored to their specific needs and interests. I and one of my undergraduate teaching majors, who was not only an outstanding teacher but a sports enthusiast, developed and taught a course called The Physics of Human Motion. The uniqueness of the course lay primarily in its laboratory activities, developed by us specifically for the course. Students measured trajectories with softball launchers, studied forces and motion by analyzing themselves running on the track, experienced inertia and angular momentum on a spinning turntable, worked with vector forces using a human force table, and other innovative activities. It was quite successful.

During the late 60's and early 70's, Prof. Samuel Posthlethwaite (7) of the Biology Department introduced a new technique for learning called Auto-Tutorial Instruction. This methodology caught on world-wide and became institutionalized in a variety of settings. Bob Stanley (1) of the Physics Department adapted this methodology in an innovative approach to teaching a special section of Physics 220-221, a course primarily for biology and pre-med majors. The students were in a special room designed for hands-on activities that would strengthen concepts through applications to physical phenomena. This approach to teaching was very labor intensive, and Bob spent the extra time and effort to make it work. Unfortunately, he became ill and eventually died, leaving the course in limbo. The project was eventually dismantled.

One of the strengths of the department's science education program lay in its formal connection with the, then, Department of Education (now the School of Education). Both Ralph Lefler and I held joint appointments, being responsible for both the secondary physics teaching majors as well as the middle school science teaching program. Our teaching majors were highly respected in the school community because they acquired a bachelor's degree in physics in addition to their teaching certification, an arrangement that continues to this day. At any given time we have approximately 8-10 students in some phase of the program.

In the mid-80's, I became involved in an NSF-sponsored national program for middle-school science teachers, called Operation Physics, authoring materials in Astronomy and Light and Color and conducting workshops for teachers at national meetings. With two Indiana teachers rounding out a state team, we conducted workshops for teachers throughout Indiana. The program had a significant impact on how science was taught at the middle school level.

As a result of the success of Operation Physics, NSF funded another major curriculum effort based on the Operation Physics model and utilizing the results of the considerable research being done in physics learning. The outcome of this project was a new course model for prospective elementary school teachers, called Powerful Ideas in Physical Science. The new model focused on four major themes and concentrated on activities that would likely confront some naive concepts held by the students. This model has been tested over several years in a variety of educational settings and is now marketed by the American Association of Physics Teachers. As an author of the Light & Color materials, I not only was involved in the development of the project, but also tested its feasibility in a large class setting at Purdue. Beginning with the fall semester of 2000, Mark Volkmann (1), jointly appointed to both Physics and Curriculum & Instruction, will introduce the course model for the first time in its intended setting, a small class in a lab-based, rather than, a lecture environment.

Beginning about 1990, several significant developments occurred in physics instruction within our department. With the advent of more powerful and readily available computers, laboratories were changed over to computer-based activities, courses in computational physics emerged and computers began to be used more frequently and effectively in large lecture classes. Recently, several classes have begun to use the CHIP program, a computerized homework application. Despite initial growing pains, the system seems to be working well and has been received positively by the students.

Although computers are being used more and more in all phases of instruction, the one-on-one person-to-person contact is still seen by many to be essential. For this reason, David Elmore introduced and has successfully used the Tutorials developed by Lillian McDermott (see above). This approach is highly labor intensive and the department has invested considerable resources to keep the program alive and running. With Elmore's leadership, the effort appears to be resonating with engineering students, the primary clientele for the course.

With Ron Reifenberger (1) providing the initiative, the department invested in both hardware and software to outfit one large lecture room with theClassroom Response System. At each student's seat is a keypad whose input, registers on a central computer at the front desk. The instructor can obtain immediate feedback from students, run statistics on quizzes, and other interactive activities that can benefit from immediate response data. Some problems have existed with the system, but the bugs are being worked out and the physics faculty appear to be warming up to the new technology.

Because of the size and number of introductory courses in the department, the need for quality instruction from teaching assistants (TA's) is essential. In the late 80's Don Schlueter and I developed a six-week summer course for incoming graduate students in which the emphasis was techniques for improving the student's presentation and problem-solving skills. Later, it was decided that such a course, in modified form, be part of the first-semester requirement of all incoming graduate students. A key policy shift was to have the course led primarily by senior graduate students with a faculty member in the role of mentor and instructor of record. The initial effort was undertaken by one of our outstanding graduate students, Adam Dunne. The course is still given each fall semester and organized by a senior graduate student.

Finally, it is of interest to note that the department has increased its state and national visibility through departmental outreach programs. In the late 80's, Chris Roddy (8) from North Carolina State University was hired to implement a program of outreach. Two major thrusts were undertaken as a result of his leadership. He was able to acquire funding from the Purdue Alumni Association for a fully equipped van to take physics demonstrations to schools throughout the state. This program, called Physics on the Road, has been in operation for over ten years, and is still popular. Roger Boyce (8) continues to drive the van all over the state, presenting weekly shows and garnering considerable publicity for the Purdue Physics Department. At the same time that Physics on the Road was starting up, several professors in the department, along with Chris Roddy and Roger Boyce, decided that it would be a good idea to bring these demonstrations to the local public. Thus started the Physics Fun Fest, which has now run for over ten years and has been highly successful. The primary participants over the years in addition to Roddy and Boyce, have been, Ephraim Fischbach (1), Van Neie, Steve Durbin(1), Marti Becker (1) and Dennis Harp (8), who replaced Chris Roddy as Outreach Coordinator in 1990. A number of graduate and undergraduate students, as well as local high school teachers, have served as assistants.

Dennis Harp also is a highly accomplished video animator and computer guru. In 1998, Dennis and I were awarded a Purdue redevelopment grant to develop a video-based distance education course for high school teachers who need to upgrade their physics background, especially for those who are teaching physics "out of their area," or who have not had formal instruction in physics for many years. One semester of the course has been completed and we are developing the video tapes for the second semester. The tapes are also made available to any who might wish to purchase them for use in the classroom. To expand the market for the course, Dennis is making a major effort to go national with the project by converting it to a web-based course.

The Physics Department continues to seek new ways to enhance the instructional process. The lecture-demonstration facility is scheduled to be renovated and updated to bring the facility up-to-date, especially in the use of new technologies. As part of the faculty mentoring process, a program has been initiated in which, on a rotating basis, a team of six faculty observe a faculty member's teaching style, materials development, and other teaching-related functions for the purpose of providing feedback, so that the faculty member can improve his or her teaching.


(Dates represent time of employment at Purdue)

  1. Faculty:
    Irving Geib (1947-73). Prof of Physics. Deceased.
    Isidor Walerstein (1930-71). Prof of Physics. Deceased
    Vivian A. Johnson (1943-78). Prof of Physics. Deceased
    Anna Akeley (1942-71). Instructor of Physics. Deceased
    Ralph W. Lefler (1946-71). Assoc Prof of Physics & Education.Deceased
    Donald Tendam (1939 - 82). Prof of Physics. Retired
    Orland Johnson (1956-94). Prof of Physics. Deceased
    Don Schlueter (1962-1999). Prof of Physics. Retired
    Hubert Yearian (1936-1971). Prof of Physics. Retired
    David Elmore (1989-2008). Prof of Physics.
    Solomon Gartenhaus (1958 - ). Prof of Physics
    Robert Stanley (1957-87). Prof of Physics. Deceased
    Mark Volkmann (1992- ). Assoc Prof of Physics & Curriculum and Instruction
    Ron Reifenberger (1978 - ). Prof of Physics
    Ephraim Fischbach (1970 - ). Prof of Physics
    Martin Becker (1962 - 1991). Prof of Physics. Retired
    Steve Durbin (1985 - ). Prof of Physics
  2. In 1998 the university established an honor roll (The Book of Great Teachers) of its greatest teachers and posted the names on a permanent plaque in the Purdue Memorial Union. The initial group consisted of 225 teachers. More names are to be added each year. In addition to Profs Johnson and Walerstein, Prof Neie of the Physics Department is included as well.
  3. Excellent history of the K. Lark-Horowitz years and an interview with Anna Akeley
  4. Arnold Arons' name was synonymous with physics teaching reform from the late 60's through the early 90's, and his work continues primarily through the efforts of Lillian McDermott, his colleague for many years at the University of Washington. Prof Arons is presently retired, but occasionally contributes articles related to physics teaching.
  5. The Science Educators involved in the Elementary Education grant were Alfred DeVito and Floyd Nordland, Profs of Elementary Education and Biology, respectively.
  6. Lillian McDermott, University of Washington, is considered by many to be the recognized leader in reform efforts in physics education. Her texts, Physics by Inquiry, and Tutorials in Physics, are widely used both in major universities and in smaller colleges.
  7. Samuel Posthlethwaite, Prof Emeritus of Biology, Purdue University, was probably one of the most recognized names in Science Education during the 60's and 70's. He traveled extensively to promote the A-T model of instruction and was a popular banquet speaker at science education meetings.
  8. Outreach Group:
    Chris Roddy (1981 - 1989) was Lecture Demonstration coordinator at NCSU before coming to Purdue to assume the position of Outreach Coordinator. After successfully implementing many outreach activities, he left to take a position at Sandhills College in North Carolina. 

    Dennis Harp (1990 - 2002) replaced Chris Roddy as Outreach Coordinator. Dennis received his PhD in Physics from Purdue in 1980 under Prof Fischbach and enjoyed a successful teaching career at Angelo State University in Texas and at Montana State University. 

    Roger Boyce (1970 - 2009) began his career as a Lecture-Demonstration Assistant and was promoted to Assistant Outreach Coordinator when Chris Roddy came to Purdue.
Van E. Neie, August 2000

Biographical Sketch

Professor Van E. Neie was born on 1 November 1938 in Clifton, Texas. He received the BA in Physics from McMurry College (Texas) in 1961, the MS in Physics from North Texas State University in 1966 and the Ph.D. in Science Education from Florida State University in 1970. He taught High School physics, at Florida High School (a University Lab School) in Tallahassee, Florida during 1968-70 and then became an Assistant Professor of Physics and Education at Purdue in 1970. In 1976 he was promoted to Associate Professor of Physics and Education and in 1991 he was promoted to Professor of Physics. His honors and awards include: Outstanding Teacher Awards, Kappa Delta Pi, 1977, 1985, 1987, 1989; the Purdue Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award (AMOCO), 1989; he is a charter member of the Purdue Teaching Academy and was selected for inclusion in the Purdue Book of Great Teachers. He has been a member of the Executive council of the American Association of Physics Teachers (1985-1998) and a member of the Association's Membership and Benefits Committee (1998). He is the author of more than 20 refereed publications in technical journals.

Solomon Gartenhaus, August 2000

Last Updated: May 25, 2016 12:07 PM