Professor to conduct physics education research in South Africa, powered by a Fulbright grant

Dr. Kebra WardIn January, Associate Professor of Physics Kebra Ward will travel to South Africa on a Fulbright Award, working on physics education research at Nelson Mandela University.

Ward’s approach to teaching physics is experiential—rather than teaching with equations only, she gives her MCLA students conceptual questions to discuss in small groups, which helps them think through the math of physics and apply what they understand more broadly. This can be especially helpful for students taking physics as a general education requirement, or students who come to physics classes as part of a life sciences major.  

“In the last 20 years, there’s been a lot of research into how to teach physics,” she said. “The answer is not to do it lecture-style. Students need to work with the material, practice it, and engage with it.”

She’ll take this approach to students at Nelson Mandela University, who are accustomed to a dictation-style format. “If you’re lecturing, you don’t see the students really get it and understand why it works. You don’t see them talking about it with other students. When I’m teaching general physics classes, I see the conversations students have. They get animated in defending their answers. It’s exciting to see them explain it to another student in terminology that makes sense to them.”

This won’t be Ward’s first time on the African continent—she taught high school biology in Mozambique as a member of the Peace Corps before earning her Ph.D. in physics. Her biology students were also used to a rote style of education—she found herself dictating lessons down to the punctuation.

As part of her fellowship, she’ll teach a general physics course and write a case study on her findings, contributing to the existing body of research around physics education.

“As far as we know, there are no case studies coming out of Africa about this,” she said. “Students come in expecting that rote memorization, and we want to see how they respond to this. It’s presented as a conceptual question—we’ll see how incorporating more verbal communication will translate to understanding the math.”

Ward chose Nelson Mandela University partially because it has a large semiconductor research program—her primary research area is in semiconductors. “I’m excited to see what type of projects they have their students working on,” she said. “I’m hoping to take some of that back to MCLA and modify it.”

She’s also hoping to create an exchange program for MCLA physics students who want to do a semester abroad. Many upper-level physics electives are offered every other year, so traveling can slow a student’s path to graduation. “I’ll be making sure the upper-level physics courses Nelson Mandela University offers can transfer back and satisfy their degree requirements,” she said. “Hopefully, I’ll be opening up a way for students to get a study abroad experience but also take those upper-level classes.”

Ward said she’s looking forward to bringing new methods to her South African students. “This is how all our intro-level physics classes are taught at MCLA, but we have smaller class sizes, especially in higher level courses,” she said. “We’ll be seeing how this translates to a 200-student lecture. To see how it works in the large scale is really exciting for me.”