Humans of JILA: Rachael Merritt

Submitted by kennac on Tue, 08/01/2023 - 1:15 pm

Rachael Merritt, a JILA postdoctoral research associate, discusses her journey into PER and her current project. 

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Rachael Merritt

While many researchers within JILA focus on pushing the limits of particles in the quantum realm or learning more about the dynamics of black holes, others, like Rachael Merritt, look at how physics is currently being taught and ways to improve this process. Known as Physics Education Research (PER), this field is crucial in enhancing the quality of physics education by providing evidence-based insights into teaching and learning practices. As a postdoctoral research associate in JILA Fellow and University of Colorado Boulder Physics professor Heather Lewandowski’s group, Merritt helps to lead some of the most cutting-edge research in PER in the United States.

Merritt’s work was not always PER-focused, as she received her Ph.D. in astronomy before making the career shift. “When I think about why I ended up taking the career path that I did, it really goes back to my grandfather, who, when he was a child, was in Native American Residential Schools,” explained Merritt. “So, he was taken from his family, taken from his culture, and beaten. And because of that, he became a school administrator as an adult. And so, you know, his priority was making sure the things that happened to him never happened again. And I remember our conversation when I was in high school when I started talking about college. He asked me what I wanted to do. And I said I didn't know. He said, ‘It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you're helping people and making a difference.’ I kept that with me this whole time.”

Merritt carried her grandfather’s advice with her during her research in astronomy. Between running the planetarium at her former institution and hosting professional development activities for her peers and undergraduate researchers, Merritt used her passion for outreach to help others as best she could. As her Ph.D. was coming to a close, during the beginning of the pandemic, Merritt began to realize that she could be making a more significant impact than what she was already doing. “I realized I’m helping the people in my immediate sphere,” she stated. “But there are people outside my immediate sphere who also need help. This is when I was talking with my Ph.D. advisor about what to do next. This is when PER came up. I decided that if I did PER, I would find one of the best people I could do it with. And that led me here.”

PER investigates different teaching methods and their impact on student learning outcomes. PER helps educators identify the most efficient and engaging instructional strategies by studying the effectiveness of various pedagogical approaches. This research allows instructors to refine their teaching methods, develop innovative approaches, and ultimately enhance the learning experience for students. In her own research, Merritt focuses on physics laboratory experiments in particular. “Since I've been here, I’ve been validating the modeling assessment for physics laboratory experiments, also known as MAPLE, which is an assessment to measure students modeling proficiency in upper-division optics and analog electronics courses,” stated Merritt.

To fully explore how students engage with modeling in experimental physics, Merritt and her fellow researchers want to use machine learning clustering algorithms to develop ‘modeling personas’ of the students who have taken the MAPLE assessment. “There definitely is a social science part of it,” said Merritt. “Because you're working with people, so there has to be. But then, once you have the data, it is a very methodical and scientific process as you're analyzing this. That's one thing that I've really appreciated about working with Heather is that she holds us all to a very high standard about how we analyze the data and what results we put out.”

Merritt’s work in PER has been recognized by Lewandowski and her team and, more recently, the National Science Foundation (NSF). “I'm very excited to say that I have been awarded a National Science Foundation Mathematical and Physical Sciences Ascending Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, or an MPS-Ascend Fellowship,” she added. “The purpose of this program is to support postdoctoral fellows who will broaden participation of groups historically excluded and currently underrepresented in MPS, or math or physical sciences, in the United States.” With her own indigenous roots, Merritt understands the problems of encouraging other historically excluded groups to enter STEM education or STEM careers.

Through this fellowship, she plans to transform physics education into more hands-on, engaging processes that could help persuade more individuals to learn more about physics through Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences or CUREs. “If you think about everything good about a traditional undergraduate research experience, you pick that up, you take it, and you drop it into a classroom setting, where you're having all of the authentic research experiences where students are doing teamwork, they're learning scientific skills that will be transferable for whatever they decide to do,” explained Merritt. “Classes in biology and chemistry already have these hands-on infrastructures in place, but it’s much more difficult for physics – especially when it comes to sustainability.”

The CURE structure has already been shown to work at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder), as Lewandowski used the infrastructure in a PHYS 1140 course. Through this structure, Lewandowski worked with over 1,000 undergraduate students to study the Sun’s corona, resulting in a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal with over 1,000 authors. The PHYS 1140 CURE was initially designed to last for only a few semesters; while it could display the positive benefits of CUREs, it couldn’t answer questions about sustainability or scalability. Merritt hopes to answer these questions with her own research. She elaborated: “The goal of my fellowship program is to actually come up with a framework for discipline-specific challenges and benefits of running CUREs in physics departments. Then from the framework, we hopefully will be able to distribute that across the country, and lots of people will be able to do similar things from that.”

To do this project, Merritt has been given permission by CU Boulder’s physics department to transform a sophomore-level physics course, Physics 2150, into this more engaging infrastructure. With hundreds of students participating in this course during her fellowship, Merritt can understand how this infrastructure may change students’ perceptions of physics and possibly encourage the next generation of scientists. “This fellowship will be incredibly helpful for my career goals, and I feel incredibly lucky to be at an R1 institution that allows postdocs to do this for their own research,” Merritt added. “We’re hoping to make this process sustainable and scalable by the end of my fellowship. Making it so that the framework is scalable and can meet people where they're at is very important.”

Written by Kenna Hughes-Castleberry, JILA Science Communicator 

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