My job is to study the ‘fun stuff’ – The journey to becoming an informal physics education researcher

Public engagement event at a local high school with the Women and Minorities in the Physical Sciences group in graduate school

By: Brean Prefontaine 

 We all know what is about to happen when someone asks, “What do/did you study?” As soon as you utter the word “physics” you have to brace for the inevitable “oh, I was never good at physics” or “I hated physics” or, possibly the most heartbreaking, “I had a really bad physics teacher.” It’s truly heartbreaking. A far-fetched dream of mine is to live in a world where I won’t hear these responses to my admission of studying physics. We all just want other people to love physics as much as we do.

Changing the world is a really hard thing to do. 

But, we can all change a small part of the world with a little bit of passion – at least this is what I tell myself because I think that my current research is really important. All of my research is related to how people interact with physics in informal learning environments, or really any place that is not a physics classroom. This could mean learning about physics at a museum, after school program, science camp, or science festival. I think that these places are so, so important because they show physics in a different way. It is not all equations on the chalkboard, but rather it is understanding how an ice skater glides across the ice or how a sculptor is being held up. These spaces have the potential to allow us all to explore physics along with other things that we enjoy. These spaces allow us to be who we are AND be a physicist.

I actually started college as an English major with my hopes set on law school. However, it soon became clear that maybe I shouldn’t pay to read the books I was already going to read (and also a field with more job prospects seemed enticing). I was not sure if I wanted to switch to physics, but 20 minutes with the department head convinced me (thank you, Dr. Goldberg, you forever changed my life!). I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and working on astrophysics research. This was okay, but I knew that I really liked working with people more than I liked working with computers. The next project I worked on was through an SPS internship working with the APS Center for History of Physics on creating lesson plans related to women and Black physicists (the project has since been expected to include all sorts of folks – you should check it out here I loved this project and I started to really think about physics education. At this point, I had no idea that a field called “physics education research” (PER) existed but I quickly learned about it and was determined to go to graduate school with a PER group.

At the International Science Festival in NYC with the IceCube collaboration

During most of my undergraduate years, I spent a lot of time volunteering for public engagement events held by our SPS chapter and the Women in Physics group. Honestly, I had a blast at every event. Seeing the students be blown away by a floating superconductor always made my week. I knew that there was something special about creating a positive experience with physics. After talking to one professor and being referred to another professor only to be referred to yet another professor, I found my advisor. Dr. Kathleen Hinko works on research related to informal physics education and I just knew that that was exactly where I wanted to be. I wanted to be studying the fun stuff! 

Now I focus on studying how informal physics education can help undergraduate and graduate students develop a stronger physics identity. Other research has shown us that physics identities are very important for persistence within the field, and so my research group is interested in physics identities among underrepresented groups of people leading to a more diverse field. Our work had used a theoretical framework called Communities of Practice to study how undergraduate graduate students benefit from teaching and facilitating physics activities in informal spaces. The great news is that it seems like these spaces are super valuable for everyone! (If you want to learn more about this project, you can read one of our papers here:

Another aspect of informal physics spaces that excites me, is the idea that we can easily combine physics with other interests (both academic and non-academic). During my free time (pre-COVID), I am usually found at an ice rink skating or coaching figure skating. So, lately, I have been working on a research project that looks at how informal spaces can combine physics with interests like figure skating. I am very excited to explore more research possibilities within this idea! 

Combining physics and ice skating at a public engagement event during National Skating Month (Jan. 2019)
So here I am, years later loving my research and still hoping to change the world through exciting physics moments. I know it is going to be a while before I stop hearing “I never really liked physics” but maybe there can be some new responses mixed in. Maybe someday someone will tell me “I once went to an art museum and learned some really interesting things about physics.” I can dream. 

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