Jatila van der Veen creates a new approach to teaching introductory physics

Jatila van der Veen, a research associate in Physics and a lecturer in the College of Creative Studies has created a new approach to introductory physics. Using arts-based teaching strategies, van der Veen has fashioned her course into a portal through which students not otherwise inclined might take the leap into the sciences –– particularly physics and mathematics. Her research appears in the current issue of the American Educational Research Journal, in a paper titled "Draw Your Physics Homework? Art as a Path to Understanding in Physics Teaching."

Van der Veen, who is also the education and public outreach coordinator for NASA's Planck Mission, said her initial research came out of her desire to make physics more accessible to female students. "I started out in gender studies, and then saw that the problem of gender in physics is just too broad and too ill-defined," she explained. "So I was looking for something else."

A dancer as well as a scientist, van der Veen was struck by the fact that, while seemingly divergent, each of those elements had been present in her life for as long as she could remember. In addition, many of her fellow recreational dancers also have jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. "I thought, if people in the sciences enjoy the arts, is it possible to go the other way? Can arts-based strategies help bring people into the sciences?"

While traditional introductory physics courses focus on 17th-century Newtonian mechanics, van der Veen takes a contemporary approach. "I start with symmetry and contemporary physics," she said. "Symmetry is the underlying mathematical principle of all physics, so this allows for several different branches of inclusion, of accessibility."

Jatila van der Veen