Fulbright Canada scholar studies why students become scientists
Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017
MANHATTAN — Whether it's an insatiable curiosity about the motion of matter or a zest for crunching numbers, there are meaningful reasons why students choose careers in physics and engineering, according to Kansas State University's Fulbright Canada scholar.
Eleanor Sayre, associate professor of physics, is the university's 2017-2018 Fulbright scholar to the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. Sayre is researching why undergraduates pursue science-related careers and how they develop their professional identity as scientists.
The reasons are both technical and cultural, Sayre said.
On the technical side, she investigates the processes students navigate in gaining practical skills, such as how to operate lab equipment and solve problems in classes. On the cultural side, she considers the memories they make and the relationships they build by participating in physics organizations and events.
"This double view of learning as both technical and cultural is uncommon in physics education, and it's really important to figuring out why people become scientists," Sayre said.
At the University of Calgary, Sayre is collaborating with two researchers she already knew: Pratim Sengupta, research chair of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and learning sciences professor, and Jason Donev, senior instructor of physics.
"The three of us put together an exciting proposal that blends my research interests with the facilities and access at the University of Calgary, so the location and colleagues are a great fit for the project," Sayre said.
Sayre's work at Kansas State University, which is known for offering myriad research opportunities to undergraduate students, is influencing her work in Alberta. Research opportunities play key roles in both student learning and professional identity development, Sayre said.
"Research experiences are often the first chance undergraduates have to experience science in all its collaborative, creative and messy glory," Sayre said. "It's a great opportunity to collaborate with new researchers who have fresh ideas."
Sayre is the recipient of National Science Foundation's Improving Undergraduate STEM Education grants for two current projects: one studying PhysPort, an online professional development tool used by physics professors, and another, the Mathematization project, which studies how upper-division physics students use math across multiple courses. She has been the principal investigator for five NSF awards and several Physics Education Research Topical Group awards. She has authored more than 50 peer-reviewed publications.