Graduate Student Postdoc Spotlight with Siera Stoen from Physics

The Graduate Student Postdoc Spotlight features interviews with graduate students and postdocs doing innovative teaching work at WashU. Look out for future installments of this monthly column on our website.

“Really consider the climate of your classroom and the language you’re using when you talk to students. How an instructor responds to students sets the tone for a class,” said Siera Stoen, a graduate student in the Department of Physics at Washington University in St. Louis. Siera has worked with introductory physics courses at WashU. She also helped develop the Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) program for Physics, which she continues to evaluate.

Siera’s focus on teaching extends beyond the physics department. She is a graduate researcher in the Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education (CIRCLE), where she does statistical analyses for various projects on education, including an Association of American Universities project that ran a qualitative study in calculus education.

Siera is also a tutor for the Washington University Prison Education Project, an initiative developed by WashU faculty to offer a competitive liberal arts degree program to incarcerated students and prison staff at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific, MO.

Siera has a B.S. in Astronomy & Physics from Northern Arizona University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in Physics with a dissertation focus on Physics Education.

In an interview with the Teaching Center, Siera highlighted how creating inclusive classrooms can benefit learning. She also discussed how practicing how you respond to students ahead of time can facilitate discussions in class.

How did you become interested in physics?

When I was five years old, I was watching the Syfy channel and Stargate SG-1 came on. In Stargate SG-1, there is a character, Samantha Carter, who is an astrophysicist. Her team discovers a device called the stargate that creates a wormhole to other worlds. I didn’t want to explore other worlds, but I liked the idea of studying the universe and how it formed. I went into my kindergarten class and my teacher asked me what I wanted to be, and I said I wanted to be an astrophysicist. My teacher said, “Do you even know how to spell that? How about a ballerina instead?” So, I learned how to spell astrophysicist, came back and spelled it for her, and said I’d take some ballet lessons, too.

What influenced you to pursue a career in physics education?

I come from a low socioeconomic background, so I had to work in order to pay for my schooling. I mainly worked as a tutor and I really enjoyed that. When I went to Northern Arizona University, I was mentored by Dr. Mark James who did research in physics education. He gave me a job called Head Teaching Assistant. I managed the other assistants and covered courses for professors when they were gone. I got to teach some of the Introduction to Physics sequence. Teaching allowed me to discover the true passion I had for it, and I decided that I wanted to continue on and teach for a living. But when I graduated, I got married and took a long break from school and eventually followed my husband to St. Louis.

My second day here, I came into the physics department to ask about graduate programs. I was fortunate to meet with Dr. Marty Israel. I sat down and asked him about PhD programs, and said I was interested in physics education. He said the department didn’t have a program like that, but could potentially work with me as there were others in the department interested in Physics Education like Dr. Mairin Hynes. He set me up with a job teaching labs and got me in contact with CIRCLE to do research. It happened that CIRCLE needed someone to score problem solving assessments for Introductory Physics which evolved into a PhD track.

What are your goals in the classroom?

I have a variety of goals some of which I am doing currently and some of which I hope to achieve. One of the major goals I hope to achieve is trying to make the physics classroom more inclusive of those who need accommodations and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. All throughout my schooling I struggled with the price of textbooks and required online homework systems. I often had to choose between eating that day/week and buying the required course materials. As I deeply understand these issues, I am actively exploring how we can reduce the cost of introductory physics while still maintaining the benefits that online homework systems provide for educators. Furthermore, we need to think about how we’re going to implement technology so all students can participate. For example, if a student is visually impaired, do our homework systems communicate effectively with the technology they use? These are both important considerations that are often overlooked.

One of the goals that I am currently working on is trying to engender interest in physics to my students. Introductory physics is a required course for a variety of majors as well as for those pursuing pre-health careers. Oftentimes physics incites feelings of anxiety and obligation for my students. Emphasizing real-world connections and answering questions like how a microwave heats food, as well as connecting physics to materials covered in other classes like how an MRI machine works can help students see the relevance and become interested in physics. Furthermore, showing how a concept is being researched in other fields like biology, chemistry and engineering around the WashU campus not only highlights other research opportunities for my students but again shows them that physics is relevant and can be applied in a variety of fields.

How did you help develop the PLTL program for Physics?

We were lucky that WashU already had two longstanding and successful PLTL programs in chemistry and calculus. I was able to work with four fabulous women: Dr. Megan Daschbach, Lisa Kuehne, Dr. Jay Sriram, and Dr. Gaby Szteinberg, and learn about what they did in the past while getting feedback about what worked and most importantly didn’t work. While doing a mini pilot of PLTL and with the help of other student mentors, groups and instructors across campus, we interviewed 150 students for 30 peer leader positions and ended up with a stellar first group of physics peer leaders. Then we hired a PLTL coordinator, who is now a graduate student at Penn State. She managed the Physics PLTL program by developing problem sets and taking over for me teaching the two required courses for our peer leaders. These courses were Seminar in Academic Mentoring (SAM) which teaches the peer leaders how to facilitate the groups, and Practical Applications of Academic Mentoring (PAM) in which the peer leaders practice that week’s problem sets so they can anticipate where students will struggle, and cultivate good approaches and questions they can ask students to show underlying connections between concepts. Hiring Nicole allowed me to assume the role of evaluating the Physics PLTL program.

Since it was the first year, we had many stumbling blocks to overcome. One stumbling block was that we only had limited funding and could not accommodate all the students who wanted to enroll in physics PLTL. We had to decide how we were going to place students into groups. Furthermore, it was difficult at first to come up with problem sets that were not too easy, or too long or difficult. Overall, we learned a lot from the first year and have a stronger, more useful program for our students because of it.

How have Center for Teaching and Learning programs enriched your teaching?

I’ve been very fortunate to work with the Teaching Center closely; I’ve attended more than 22 workshops, participated in the Introduction to SoTL Seminar, and the Jump-Start Program. Additionally, I become a member of the Teaching Center Graduate Student Advisory Council (TC GSAC). The Teaching Center provided me with a community and a way to practice and communicate teaching to others, as well as bring in new ideas through best and current practices. Furthermore, it offered the opportunity to attend workshops on topics that are outside my expertise and learn about these pedagogies while providing me language and tools I can bring into my classroom.

What has your experience been like as a tutor in the Washington University Prison Education Project?

I started working with the Prison Education Project in 2014 when Dr. Jami Ake asked if I could come work with the Physics and Society course. It grew to be one of my favorite activities and I’ve helped students in a range of topics including mathematics, astronomy, physics, psychology, computer science and even economics. While the students are under-prepared in terms of their STEM background, they’re very motivated and conscientious. They spend hours a day contemplating and reading, and ask really clever questions that display deep yearning to understand the material. Working with PEP has allowed me to grow in terms of adapting curriculums to make them more inclusive for those who have been under-challenged and hone my techniques in facilitating the learning process of others. Without hesitation I can say that this has been the most rewarding and eye-opening experience of my academic career.

 What are some of the challenges of teaching, and how do you address them?

One of the biggest challenges I encounter is that my students come in with radically different levels of preparation and backgrounds—I need to make sure no one is bored or overwhelmed. In order to achieve this, I use teaching practices that requires input from other students. This could be either student to student interactions (e.g., clicker questions where I have them discuss with their neighbors) or student to instructor interactions (e.g., interactive lecturing when problem-solving where I ask my students what I should do next). This allows my students to contribute their knowledge and reasoning in how to go about solving and thinking about a problem. Furthermore, my students are learning different approaches and thought processes in solving problems. While some of these are not always correct, it allows me to address misconceptions that my students are having.

What advice do you have for graduate students who are teaching or considering teaching?

Really consider the climate of your classroom and the language you’re using when you talk to students. How an instructor responds to students sets the tone for a class and can really encourage participation. For example, how do you respond to a student when you ask for them to explain their reasoning, and the student gives you something way off the wall? Sometimes that takes a little bit of acting skills. Practice how you’re going to respond to students when they give you their reasoning. If a student responds incorrectly, you can say, “That’s a common misconception, and thanks for bringing it up because it allows me to address that.” Or “I can understand/see how you potentially got that answer but there are a few points which are incorrect. Thanks so much because that allows me to clarify some details.” You’re thanking the student and creating an atmosphere where it’s okay to be wrong.

What are your future teaching aspirations, and how do you plan to achieve them

Ideally, I’m graduating in May. I would like to find a lecturer or a discipline-based educational research (DBER) position in a physics department in the Oregon area. I’d like to teach and do research on how to improve learning outcomes for courses while being closer to family.

What was one of your most influential classes?

One of my favorite classes was an anthropology course about Native American tribes and other cultures. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, we learned about the local Native American tribes starting in elementary school. When I was at college in Arizona, I learned about the disparity between the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, where food was plentiful, and the Southwest, where tribes were trying to grow crops in the desert.

The class also explored a bunch of different cultures. It encouraged me to bring diversity into my teaching. Because of this course I have always tried to highlight the contributions from physicists whose backgrounds set them apart from many well-known physicists. This includes women, non-Western scientists, and physicists from low-income or non-traditional backgrounds.

Who are some of your favorite teachers, and why?

I was always close with my teachers growing up because I was very studious and I wanted to spend a lot of time at school. However, I mainly connected with the custodians or office staff because they were so kind. You could talk to them as human beings, not authority figures. They gave me non-judgmental advice and feedback. There was one custodian who worked at my middle school named Jim Hawkins, and I appreciated him so much that I named my first cat Jim.

 As far as WashU goes, I am lucky to have interacted with so many fabulous educators here. However, one of my favorite physics professors at WashU is Dr. Manel Errando. I really enjoy watching him teach because he really works through and connects different concepts. While the concept questions or examples he picks can be more challenging—they spark conversation and really engage students. Furthermore, when the students are struggling, Manel always goes back and has a discussion with the students to address misconceptions or harder parts. Watching Manel teach is like watching an artist or a great actor perform–he’s a phenomenal teacher, and a joy to work with. He’s also provided key insights into where students struggle or get lost and has always been helpful in providing feedback whenever you ask him. I’ve always appreciated that.

Interview has been condensed and edited.