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2015 University Faculty Lecture

The science of teaching science

Veteran professor Lillian Christie McDermott, head of the Physics Education Group, has been conducting leading-edge physics education research at the UW for over 40 years.

lillian mcdermott
Lillian McDermott

As a freshman at Vassar College in the late 1940s, Lillian Christie McDermott recalls that despite having the highest grade in her introductory physics course, she still didn’t think she truly understood the course material. It wasn’t so much the how of the equations that she didn’t completely grasp, but the why.

University Faculty Lecture

  • When: Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015, 7 – 8 p.m.
  • Campus location: Kane Hall (KNE)
  • Campus room: 130

In conjunction with the Office of the Provost, members of the UW faculty choose one of their peers to deliver this lecture. Professor Lillian McDermott, Professor of Physics and Director of the Physics Education Group, is the 2015 lecturer. This award honors faculty whose research, scholarship or art has been widely recognized by their colleagues and whose achievements have had a substantial impact on their profession and perhaps on society as a whole.

After over four decades of teaching at the University of Washington, Lillian still has plenty of questions to ask about how physics is taught as a discipline. In fact, asking questions is her focus. “Reasoning in physics sometimes gets replaced by memorizing formulas and equations,” says Lillian. “You need these for other reasons. But they aren’t the reasoning. You have to know how they’re derived, how they came about.”

Lillian leads the Physics Education Group (PEG) at the UW, which she helped create in the early 1970s. Through ongoing research, curriculum development and education, the PEG works to improve the teaching and learning of physics from kindergarten all the way through graduate school.

“We identify the conceptual and reasoning difficulties that students have in learning a given topic in physics,” says Lillian. Run by scientists, it’s no surprise that this subject-centered approach is all grounded in science and experimentation.

Take a tutorial session in an undergraduate physics course at the UW, for example. It begins with a baseline quiz, then moves to a hands-on tutorial session. The instructors — graduate teaching assistants who participate in required weekly seminars — wander throughout the classroom and offer Socratic-style guidance: They don’t give the answer in a direct way, but instead ask thoughtful, guided questions that help students arrive at the correct answers on their own.

And the results are impressive: Students who have worked through the tutorials perform markedly better on regular course exams than those who have not.

The PEG has a particularly strong emphasis on undergraduate physics education, but its work extends far beyond these tutorial sessions. Lillian and other members of the group work tirelessly to produce, test and refine nationally distributed curriculum for all grade levels; give talks and presentations at universities and professional groups; lead special courses for aspiring physics teachers during the academic year; and conduct intensive National Science Foundation Summer Institutes for current teachers. Graduate students in the PEG earn a Ph.D. in physics for research in physics education — ensuring that this research will continue into the next generation.

In short, the reach of the PEG is deep, and Lillian has high hopes for its future.

“I’d like to see it continue to grow and be recognized as an important factor in helping people learn,” she says. “The research in physics education here is leading-edge. I don’t know of any other place that has done and documented as much as the UW.” 

Lillian C. McDermott: Outside the classroom

Lillian’s broad-based education has shaped who she is today. Though quite busy with the work she does as a professor of physics, she still maintains her boundless curiosity for art, history and more.

As a young girl, Lillian learned about ancient Greek mythology and history — as well as long division — from her father.

She also studied Greek, Latin and French.

While a student at Vassar College, Lillian had a music scholarship that funded her piano lessons, and she took courses in music theory, art history and philosophy.

Today, she finds time to attend performances at Seattle Opera and visit the Seattle Art Museum, Pacific Science Center and Burke Museum.

When she can, Lillian attends the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland — before her children were in college, she and her family used to go every year.

One on-campus demonstration of Lillian’s interest in art — especially Pacific Northwest Native American art — is the medallion embedded in the walkway at the main entrance to the Physics/Astronomy Building. She donated it to the UW in memory of her late husband, Mark, who was chair of the UW Department of Physics from 1984 to 1994.