Dr. Andy Johnson, Black Hills State University assistant professor of physics, uses inquiry-based instruction to teach his physics students about radioactivity and ionizing radiation.
 Students in BHSU assistant professor Dr. Andy Johnson's physics class try to detect radiation in a plate using a Geiger counter.

Radiation may seem like a foreign concept for non-science majors and one that is incomprehensible; however, Black Hills State University assistant professor Dr. Andy Johnson believes the way the concepts are taught makes all the difference.

His innovative ideas on inquiry-based instruction in teaching radioactivity and ionizing radiation are being recognized in this week’s issue of Science magazine. Johnson’s essay “Radiation and Atomic Literacy for Nonscientists” was chosen as this month’s Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction (IBI). In it he describes his nearly decade-long project.

The Science Prize for IBI was established to encourage innovation and excellence in education by recognizing outstanding, inquiry-based science and design-based engineering education modules.

In his essay, Johnson explains, “Students can understand radioactivity without an extensive background in science. In order to make sense of ionizing radiation, students need to know what ionizing radiation is, where it comes from, and how it can do harm. Those three categories have guided the development of Inquiry into Radiation (IiR) materials.”

Johnson said he was surprised and elated by the award and hopes it brings additional light to the fact that there is a big hole in the traditional list of physics topics. “Although radiation is all around us, and we are finding more and more uses for it, very few people are working on helping people understand radiation.”  He also hopes that those who read the article will take advantage of the free IiR materials available and begin utilizing them in their classes.  The IiR materials are available at www.camse.org/radiation

Johnson’s materials were field tested at Boise State University and Drury University in Springfield, Mo., and Drury has created a new course for teaching radiation with these materials. A McIntosh High School teacher started using the IiR materials five years ago after taking a workshop from Johnson on teaching radiation. “I’m really hoping that a lot more schools will use these materials,” Johnson said. “We have done a lot of research on them and have shown that they help regular students understand radiation more deeply.” Johnson has also written a complete guide to help teachers use the materials.

“Along with the course materials, we created a Radiation Concepts Inventory that is valuable for finding  out what students have learned and what they need to learn about basic radiation concepts,” Johnson said noting that it has already been used in courses at BHSU as well as in a summer course at Hope College in Michigan.

The IiR Project, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, initially began in 2004 to determine how much students can learn about radiation through inquiry. After years of research and classroom testing, Johnson determined that students develop a better understanding of science through interactive engagement methods such as inquiry.

“I have seen vast improvements in student understanding,” Johnson said noting they measure student’s understanding of atoms, ions, radiation, and ionization by radiation using pre-post testing and other techniques.

“After instruction we have found that roughly 80 percent understand key ideas about atoms, and about 70 percent understand what radiation is and how it ionizes matter,” Johnson said. “We anticipate reaching this level of achievement with nonscience majors would be extremely unlikely using traditional lecture techniques."

The IiR course materials include a lot of changes in the sequence of topics and the addition of ones people initially thought were unnecessary as well as new tools and strategies.

“Many years later, non-science students understand much more about radiation, radioactivity, and related topics,” Johnson said.

He recently presented his research at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Indianapolis, and earlier this spring Johnson and his research assistant Anna Hafele, BHSU outdoor education and biology major from Newell, discussed their research at the Council on Undergraduate Research Posters on the Hill event in Washington, D.C. Hafele has been working with Johnson for nearly four years.

Johnson is the associate director for science education at the Center for Math and Science Education (CAMSE) at Black Hills State University. In addition to his research and development of inquiry-based course materials, Johnson teaches physics at BHSU and provides professional development to kindergarten through high school teachers. He received a bachelor’s degree in physics from Colorado School of Mines, a master’s degree in physics from Arizona State University, and his doctorate in physics education from San Diego State University and the University of California at San Diego.

Johnson’s entire essay and a video of Johnson discussing his research and creation of Inquiry into Radiation materials can be viewed at ScienceMag.org.