Anna Hafele, an outdoor education and biology major from Newell, left, discusses with Breanna Gray, art education major from Hartford, and Ericka Gonzalez, applied health sciences major, about whether or not the apples on the radioactive antique plate will also become radioactive.


Dr. Andy Johnson, BHSU assistant professor of physics, uses a simulator to talk about the structure of an atom with Megan Walker, special education major from Gillette, Wyo., left, and Kristin Prescott, human services major from Menomonee Falls, Wis.

 Anna Hafele, an outdoor education and biology major from Newell, discusses her research “Student Journeys for Understanding Radiation and Radioactivity” during the recent Black Hills Research Symposium. Hafele will present her research during the upcoming Council on Undergraduate Research’s Posters on the Hill in Washington, D.C. Hafele’s work was one of 60 projects selected out of 800 entries.  
For three years, Black Hills State University student Anna Hafele and Dr. Andy Johnson, assistant professor of physics, have been researching students’ understanding of radiation and radioactivity and how to modify classroom instruction to enhance that understanding.

The culmination of their research will now be one of 60 projects presented at the upcoming Council on Undergraduate Research’s (CUR) Posters on the Hill event in Washington, D.C.  The poster session is Wednesday, April 24. Hafele and Johnson are also scheduled to speak with South Dakota’s Congressional delegates.

“I was so surprised,” said Hafele, an outdoor education and biology major from Newell, of their research being selected out of more than 800 entries. Hafele said she is excited to present her research as well as see what other students across the country have been studying.

Hafele began working with Johnson more than three years ago after taking his intro to physics class. Her interest in the class prompted her to start volunteering in the class and eventually becoming Johnson’s research assistant. Their research - sponsored by the National Science Foundation - focuses on non-science majors' understanding of radiation and radioactivity.

“We would see students using radioactivity and radiation (terms) interchangeably,” Hafele said of their classroom observations. “They would talk about it as if it was some sort of material. There was just not a basic understanding about what it was, where it came from and what it does.”

The misunderstanding of radiation and radioactivity is not unique to Johnson’s classroom.

“It is a documented problem,” he said. “What we are teaching is actually very simple and basic, but almost nobody understands it.”

The goal of the research is to learn how to teach this topic better and to demonstrate to others the magnitude of the learning difficulties surrounding the subject, Johnson said.

“We’ve studied different issues students have from not understanding the structure of atoms and how that affects their understanding of radiation to what troubles they have with ionizing and differentiating between radiation and radioactivity,” Hafele said. The research is completed right in the classroom with Hafele and Johnson looking at students’ homework, their journals and listening to their discussions with one another. “The students are actually helping us learn about the issue and building curriculum materials,” Hafele said.

The data they compiled is helping Johnson develop new course material, including a computerized atom simulator, which addresses the students misunderstanding of the concepts. Changes such as the addition of simulators helps students figure out the concepts on their own instead of just being told about them, Johnson said.  The three simulators - Atom Builder, Atom Invaders, and Tracks - are available at http://www.camse.org/sims. Johnson and Hafele have created course materials that enable anyone to understand the basics of radiation and radioactivity.

 "We're working on radiation literacy for everyone," said Johnson." The IiR materials are freely available at http://www.camse.org/radiation

The two have seen great improvements in the students’ understanding of the various concepts related to radiation and radioactivity.

Johnson said that Hafele has been an integral part of the research and has become an expert in explaining radiation and radioactivity.

“Some physics teachers don’t even know how to teach about radioactivity,” Johnson said. “Anna understands these basic ideas about radiation quite well, and she also understands the kinds of questions students have and why they have these questions. She knows the ways to help students think about developing new answers to their questions.”

Hafele’s poster includes a summary of her three years of research and includes students’ understanding of atoms, ionizing and differentiating between radiation and radioactivity.