Five questions for Noah Finkelstein

Onetime ‘faculty brat’ now works to transform STEM learning, teaching

As a “faculty brat,” Noah Finkelstein knew he would become an educator, but he didn’t realize his current work “blending content identity and educational identity” existed. He calls his route to the University of Colorado Boulder a “circuitous” one, but each step prepared him to be where he is today: professor of physics, a principal investigator of the Physics Education Research group and a director of the Center for STEM Learning.

“Not only am I trying to build spaces and places for people to engage in educational research, practice and transformation, but I’m a product of earlier versions of such efforts,” Finkelstein says.

After earning an undergraduate degree in math at Yale, he spent time working at Ford Aerospace, then worked in a renowned international research lab on learning and development (directed by an early mentor and family friend) that ran many of the after-school programs he had attended as a child. There he studied the formation of communities over pre-Internet computer networks and also was “the tech guy” who supported the out-of-school programs run by the lab.

At graduate school at Princeton, he specialized in laser physics. He won a Postdoctoral Fellowship and worked at the University of California (San Diego and Berkeley) where he studied how people learn physics. He also taught high school students and “demonstrated that inner-city kids could learn as much or more than the students I had been teaching in college intro physics classes.”

He came to CU in 2003; his work toward educational transformation and research was ahead of the current national push that is receiving attention.

“The more time I’ve spent trying to study what happens in classroom and transform and improve the opportunities we provide students, the more I have realized it is bound by policies and politics within the institution and state and federal levels. And I’ve been increasingly getting involved in advocating for change in those areas,” he says. In 2010, he testified to Congress about STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education, and based on his testimony, worked on legislation that supported new programs and increased research fellowship money.

“If we as educators don’t engage in defining, externalizing and sharing the worth of our disciplines, someone else will,” Finkelstein says. “We recognize that that is our charge and mission. If we do that, we’ll be on the leading edge of what happens and we will serve as model for other institutions.”

1. Is the way students learn physics different from the way they learn subjects in non-science fields?

There are similarities and differences. Learning is an incredibly complex issue, but there are some general principles involved. Actively engaging students is essential. Learners must be active intellectually, physically, psychologically and cognitively. Education is not simply a matter of information delivery; it’s a form of socialization, of bringing students into our culture. That’s the grand challenge. We can demonstrate with consistency and reliability that when students are engaged and challenged, when they interact with each other, they learn.

So, for any field, actively involving students is key, but each discipline builds on what students already know and coordinates a varied set of skills, tools and habits of mind across a particular subject domain.  These are essential forms of educational practice that we’ve gotten very good at doing in many fields at CU. For instance, in physics, our research has shown that students in our intro physics classes, which incorporate active engagement practices, perform two to three times better than the national average and better than they have in traditional lecture classes. I’m not dismissing the lecture; it’s one tool out of many. But it shouldn’t be the only tool we employ.

2. How has the Physics Education Research Group at Colorado (PER@C) moved to advance teaching and learning?

The group formed around 2003 and perhaps that is why I was hired. Perhaps I was a catalyst, much as a rough pebble stimulates other activity that results in a fine pearl. We take a deep disciplinary look at the nature of the conditions that will promote or inhibit learning and student engagement in physics.

Some of the research looks at PhET Interactive Simulations, which can replace real material equipment with computer simulations. We measure when and how students learn better with these simulations and simultaneously study how to build better simulations. We also have measured the impacts of using personal response systems (or clickers) on learning and educational environments.

We’ve done important work on inclusion and access and gender gaps in physics. In physics, males typically perform better, get better grades, report more expert-like attitudes, and are more likely to be retained after a freshman physics class than women in our environment. We’ve studied that and documented some of why it happens and we have promising interventions that we’ve developed in collaboration with social psychologists. In one intervention we have found we can address the impacts of stereotype – so, normalizing for student background preparation, we can shift the dominant grade of women from roughly the C-range to the B-range through two, 15-minute writing exercises. At the same time, we don’t degrade the performance of men.

We’ve also done tremendous work creating informal educational environments, much like those I was brought up in, and we find that undergrad and grad students who teach in these environments learn physics (as do the kids). Our university students also learn how to communicate more effectively with the public, which is essential for a scientist today.

3. You also are involved with the Center for STEM Learning. What are some of the center’s goals and accomplishments?

I’m one of three directors at the center, which works to promote education as a scholarly and professional activity for faculty, students and staff. We are building on other campus-wide efforts that have been going on for years. We want to create a campus-wide identity and object around educational transformation and STEM. We see ourselves as a catalyst, a connector, and a resource for students, faculty and staff.

I like to say that we’re like the BASF or 3M of STEM education: We don’t make STEM education, we make STEM education better. There are roughly 75 programs involved with STEM education on campus. We honor the identity and successes they’ve made and we support those programs. We also incubate new programs and coordinate a network among the programs to enhance capacity, sustainability, and the impact of those programs.

At CU, we have been successful at recruiting and supporting students and improving the quality of education we provide them. We still have a ways to go, but we have made remarkable strides in supporting students from underrepresented populations, for instance, in our engineering efforts through the BOLD Center. Data just coming out demonstrates that we have students from non-dominant communities enrolled in our programs who might not otherwise have come to campus.  They are achieving at levels as high as any other engineering majors, which is tremendous. Another effort on campus, the Learning Assistant program, has also been successful at promoting improvements and access for STEM education and for increasing the number of STEM students going into K-12 teaching.

How we go about bringing more students to STEM fields is critical. We don’t simply want numbers; we want quality and diversity and equity for our students. We want to empower our students. We have data to demonstrate that students are learning more than they used to and are enjoying a higher-quality educational experience. Now the challenge is to move our research-based practices into wide-scale practice.

In just about any educational environment, we know what we need to do, but we are suffering from understanding how to move this research into practice, how to sustain and scale educational transformations. We have to put models into wide-scale practice and sustain our successes. One way to do that is to support faculty who want to engage. In fact, we’re pleased to be one of the Association of American Universities’ lead demonstration sites nationally that do just this in the coming years.  We are probably the most engaged faculty of any of the institutions where I have spent time, and I’ve been at seven different universities. Faculty must be supported so that we can create the university we want to participate in; so that we are the ones leading how we’re moving into the 21st century as an education institute of the future rather than carrying over historic polices or simply reacting to outside pressures.

4. In September, an annual symposium will look at STEM education. What do you hope to achieve with the event?

The Fifth Annual Symposium on STEM Education is Sept. 23 and we will be showcasing and celebrating a wide variety of education initiatives. This is an opportunity for people to talk about successes and to incubate new forms of practice. We’ll have poster sessions and celebrate signature programs on campus – the Learning Assist program, National Center for Women in Information, ITLL (Integrated Teaching and Learning Program and Laboratory), the General Engineering Plus CU Teach degree program.  We also anticipate remarks by Colorado’s Lt. Gov.  Joe Garcia.

It’s a free event and allows time for people to get together and have that water cooler chat. (For more information and to register visit )

5. Outside of education, what are some favorite activities you enjoy?

I love Boulder. When I first moved here, I went around asking people, “Why did you come to Boulder?” and they said, “Are you kidding me? Look at this place.” They told me they’d flip burgers or do whatever it took to live here. So, like the others who live here, I love the outdoors – hiking, biking, skiing. I will often be found at the St. Julien on Friday nights for salsa or samba dancing. I’m also active in the Adventure Rabbi program, which celebrates Passover by camping in the desert along the Colorado River in Moab, Utah.

One of my favorite activities is sitting on my stoop with friends, trying to make sense of the world around us. I have a front porch and my dining table is outside looking out into the community, not sequestered in the back. I’m about participating in community and collaboration. My greatest successes are the communities I get to participate in and help shape and build, whether academic or STEM or the community of my friends. It’s tremendously rewarding.

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