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Mentored Research Projects

Click on each faculty name to read more about their research!  

Dr. Scott Franklin

The myth of the “lone genius” notwithstanding, physics is a fundamentally social discipline, and how and what is learned depends greatly on interactions with the surrounding community, including both peers and mentors. Dr. Franklin’s research focuses on the nature of these interactions and how they both shape --- and are shaped by --- individual identities. For example, student discussions are analyzed to develop definitions of equity that go beyond the simple “who talks,” including patterns of group interactions, ideas of “in-chargeness” and the ability to function in one’s preferred mode of inquiry. This extends beyond the classroom, and recent research has also looked at differential perceptions of undergraduate research experiences, exploring why a research environment that is supportive and nurturing to one student alienates another. This research has practical implications as we develop a better understanding of what faculty can do to promote inclusive, respectful environments in both the classroom and research lab. With an eye on retention and student success, Dr. Franklin has also supervised quantitative research on student routes to graduation, with novel methods to determine persistence and success. Dr. Franklin is looking to for students to take on two separate types of projects: qualitative analysis of video of student groups or direct interviews to study student peer- or faculty-interactions and, separately, quantitative studies that look at the longitudinal impact of curricular innovations to see if, for example, a change made to a first-year course shows beneficial impacts two or three years later.


Dr. Kelly Martin

Communication is categorized as a set of skills/to check off as mastered as opposed to a complex rhetorical situation that requires much experience and nuance. In academic communities, research confirms that students are socialized into particular disciplinary ways of communicating. Communication in the Disciplines (CID) pedagogy argues that communication competencies are best taught and learned when tied to discipline-specific situations. Although the CID framework stresses field-specific preparation, minimal investigations have been conducted within professional environments. Dr. Martin is interested in developing training materials for the Communication Center on campus that provides consultant-based education. Interviews would be used to determine what kinds of themes within a communication certificate would be most attractive to STEM faculty and what would most likely draw STEM students to earn a certificate in Humanities and Communication as part of their general education requirements.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing (D&HH) students are often asked to make public presentations in STEM courses that have a presentation component. Inevitably, the expectations for the deaf students and their experiences in the course are different than for those of hearing students. Although instructors make efforts to accommodate D&HH students, there are very few existing resources to help give instructors a full understanding of the nuances, complexities, and impact of introducing variables such as ASL, captioning, interpreters, etc. into communication situations that are traditionally oral. Dr. Martin seeks to conduct classroom observations and interviews with D&HH students and hearing students, interpreters, NTID librarians, and instructors to uncover emotions, assumptions and preferences of D&HH students and faculty as well as best practices for evaluation and feedback.

To read more about Dr. Martin’s work please see here and here  


Dr. Dina Newman

Molecular Biology and Genetics are difficult topics for students since the mechanisms are only indirectly observable, and we must rely on abstract or simplistic visual representations to build mental models of complex processes. Dr. Newman’s interests lie in both uncovering how experts and novices differ in their conceptions as well as how to more effectively lead novices to expert-like thinking. As an example of a current project relating to the first type of research, the team has developed a set of cards with different types of representations of DNA; faculty and students sort them differently, revealing interesting differences and gaps in student understanding (see abstract #237 from SABER 2020). The second type of research involves creating new activities for classroom use (see abstract #68 from SABER West 2020). Past projects have involved physical models and interactive video vignettes to teach core concepts of biology. Future work will focus on developing online activities from hands-on materials. For more information about Dr. Newman’s research, see these papers [DNA Triangle, Physical Models, IVVs].

Dr. Kate Wright

The field of Molecular Biology seeks to uncover and understand the underlying mechanisms that govern gene expression, cellular communication and the flow of genetic information. As concepts and processes of Molecular Biology are not directly observable, experts and learners must rely on visual representations (e.g. graphs, illustrations, diagrams) to communicate, explore and test ideas in this domain. While much work has focused on how experts and novices interpret various visual representations, Dr. Wright is interested in how individuals choose to represent their knowledge of molecular biology phenomena through drawings of their own. Using a new framework that incorporates the levels of abstraction and magnification of DNA-based representations, the lab has uncovered interesting and unexpected ways in which novices communicate ideas in Molecular Biology through drawings (see here). The research group wants to explore, more deeply, how students conceptualize “gene expression” through interviews and survey data and investigate where these ideas may come from by exploring secondary biology instruction and resources. Recent data from a related project suggests that framing (the visuals and/or biology-specific terminology that are used in question prompts) may influence how learners formulate and communicate their ideas about molecular biology. The research group seeks to explore how language and visual tools may prime students for conceptualizing their ideas. To read about other work from the lab please click here, here, and here.  

Dr. Tony Wong

Dr. Wong’s research focuses on characterizing the implications of the uncertainty that is inherent in all models and data, and examining how best to quantify and constrain these uncertainties and their effects on decision-making. Typically, this involves formulating a mathematical expression to quantify how well making a particular decision will perform in different states of the world. But, we must flex our decision against a variety of potential states of the world, and examine the distribution of possible outcomes. Dr. Wong is particularly interested in how data and models can be used to inform decision-making about how to structure and teach college mathematics courses. One such project examines the “class size effect” of lecture courses. This is the association between the number of students in a class and its potential effect on student satisfaction, grades and retention rates, for example. Different class sizes can affect student outcomes in a variety of ways, including by reducing the amount of time an instructor can dedicate per student or by constraining the types of in-class activities that can be used. This project has the potential to inform decision-making about which class sizes and curriculum for lower-division math courses at RIT and beyond. Another project of interest is using a probabilistic mathematical model to estimate academic program retention rates for different subgroups of students. These subgroups can be based on course preparation (for example, students who take a certain version of a course), specific academic programs, or examining differences in retention rates for different demographics. The goal of this research is to identify potential barriers to success in higher education. This, in turn can help identify strategies for improving retention and graduation rates for all students.

In general, Dr. Wong has found that students who are interested in tackling research projects with him are well-served by having taken an introductory probability and statistics course and some experience with a programming language (for example, MATLAB, Julia, Python or R). To read more about Dr. Wong’s ongoing work, please visit his RIT website here, or his personal page here.


Dr. Ben Zwickl

An emphasis on STEM education has surged within formal and informal education at all levels. Although many reasons exist for this trend, it is the link between STEM, economic development, and job creation that has received the broadest support at both local and national levels. However, there is a dearth of research examining the connection between STEM education and professional success. Dr. Ben Zwickl’s research benefits students, employers, and communities by addressing aspects that gap through several projects. Dr. Zwickl’s group is developing an assessment tool for physics majors’ career decision-making. The survey will uncover how students develop and pursue interests in different methods (theoretical, computational, and experimental), sub-fields (e.g., optics, astrophysics), and post-BS career paths (e.g., graduate school, job). The survey development involves qualitative interviews as well as statistical analyses and will help identify the positive and negative influences on students’ decisions. A second project is examining the mathematical practices used by theoretical physicists. The goal is to identify practices that may not be explicitly taught in the classroom, but which are relevant for using mathematics to solve real-world problems. A third project is studying learning in undergraduate research, graduate research, and project-based courses. By conducting these studies, Dr Zwickl hopes to reveal factors that are often hidden, but are important for successful outcomes for students. Learning is viewed through a social-cultural perspective that not only includes disciplinary knowledge, but also ways of thinking, science and engineering practices, social interactions, communities, and cultures within lab groups, departments, and disciplines.  To read more about Dr. Zwickl’s work please click on the publications below.

Hands-on Lab Skills Key for Quantum Jobs

Preparing for the quantum revolution: What is the role of higher education?

Characterizing mathematical problem solving in physics-related workplaces using epistemic games

Typical physics Ph.D. admissions criteria limit access to underrepresented groups but fail to predict doctoral completion

On being a physics major: student perceptions of physics difficulties, rewards, and motivations