Morgan PhD: Quantum Tunneling

Jeffrey T. Morgan
Investigating How Students Think About and Learn Quantum Physics: An Example From Tunneling
Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maine, 2006

Much of physics education research (PER) has focused on introductory courses and topics, with less research done into how students learn physics in advanced courses. Members of The University of Maine Physics Education Research Laboratory (PERL) have begun studying how students in advanced physics courses reason about classical mechanics, thermal physics, and quantum physics. Here, we describe an investigation into how students reason about quantum mechanical tunneling, and detail how those findings informed a portion of a curriculum development project. Quantum mechanical tunneling is a standard topic discussed in most modern physics and quantum physics courses. Understanding tunneling is crucial to making sense of several topics in physics, including scanning tunneling microscopy and nuclear decay. To make sense of the standard presentation of tunneling, students must track total, potential, and kinetic energies. Additionally, they must distinguish between the ideas of energy, probability density, and the wave function. They need to understand the complex nature of the wave function, as well as understand what can and cannot be inferred from a solution to the time-independent Schrödinger equation. Our investigations into student understanding of these ideas consisted of a series of interviews, as well as a survey. Both centered around asking students to reason about energy, probability, and the wave function solutions for the standard square potential energy barrier scenario presented in most textbooks. We describe ideas that students seem to successfully learn following standard instruction, as well as common difficulties that remain. Additionally, we present multiple data points from a small population of physics majors over three years and describe how some of their reasoning about tunneling changed, while other portions seemed to remain unaffected by instruction. We used the results of these investigations to write tutorials on tunneling and applications of tunneling. The tutorials were part of a course on introductory quantum physics for non-science majors. In this course, most of the ideas were introduced in the small-group, student-centered tutorial-labs. We present evidence that this population can learn some basic ideas of quantum physics, and on certain tunneling questions perform as well or better than advanced undergraduate students.

Recommended Citation

Morgan, Jeffrey Todd, "Investigating how Students Think About and Learn Quantum Physics: An Example from Tunneling" (2006). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 524.


O'Brien MST: Physics First in Maine

Michael O'Brien
An investigation into the effectiveness of Physics First in Maine
Unpublished MST thesis, May 2006

Data from three high schools that teach physics in ninth grade and three that teach physics in twelfth grade were used to make comparisons between these classes. Research tools include written pre- and post-tests of kinematics and mechanics concepts, a written physics attitudes and expectations survey, and individual student interviews. Portions of these tools were excerpted from wellknown and thoroughly tested instruments. The normalized gains on the conceptual survey were compared, and analyzed to determine which kinematics and mechanics concepts ninth- and twelfth-graders appear to learn differently. Students' perceptions of physics from the ninth- and twelfth-grade viewpoints are also compared. Results suggest that while the populations are similar affectively, they have some significant differences in conceptual understanding, and this difference is amplified by different instructional approaches.

Recommended Citation

O'Brien, Michael James, "An Investigation of the Effectiveness of Physics First in Maine" (2006). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 1362.


Traxler MST: Teaching Time in Intro Astro

Adrienne Traxler
"Assessment and Modification of an Introductory Astronomy Laboratory Lesson on Astronomical Time-Keeping"
Unpublished MST thesis, May 2006

The introductory astronomy laboratory course at the University of Maine consists of weekly lessons in which students work in small groups on computer-based exercises. My work consists of assessing and revising a lesson on astronomical time-keeping, including sidereal time, Apparent Solar Time, and time zones. After a baseline of pretest and post-test data was collected, the lesson went through two major revisions. For the spring 2005 semester, the unit was altered to incorporate planetarium software for simulating the sky instead of the physical celestial sphere models previously used. This change produced only small gains from pretest to post-test, so a more drastic change to the lesson was planned. For fall 2005, the entire lesson was rewritten to focus more explicitly on the desired conceptual content and less on intermediary mathematical manipulations. This final iteration of the material was reused in the spring 2006 semester with a new pretest that was updated based on student interviews. Although the fall 2005 data indicated a trend of pretest to post-test improvement with the rewritten lesson, the spring 2006 data do not sustain this trend. Overall, neither the interface change nor the switch to a more inquiry-based style seem to reliably affect student performance on the post-test. I present and discuss these results in detail, including possible explanations for the lack of pre/post-test gain.


Bucy, Thompson, Mountcastle on Entropy

B.R. Bucy, J.R. Thompson, D.B. Mountcastle
What is Entropy? Advanced Undergraduate Performance Comparing Ideal Gas Processes
2005 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, edited by P. Heron, L. McCullough, and J. Marx, AIP Conference Proceedings 818, 77-80 (2006)

Thompson, Bucy, and Mountcastle on partial derivatives in thermo

J.R. Thompson, B.R. Bucy, D.B. Mountcastle
Assessing Student Understanding of Partial Derivatives in Thermodynamics
2005 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings, edited by P. Heron, L. McCullough, and J. Marx, AIP Conference Proceedings 818, 77-80 (2006)

Morgan and Wittmann on Quantum Tunneling

J.T. Morgan and M.C. Wittmann
Examining the Evolution of Student Ideas About Quantum Tunneling
in P. Heron, L. McCullough, J. Marx (Eds.) Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings 2005, AIP Conference Proceedings 818, 73-76 (2006).