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Paul van Kampen

Dr Paul van Kampen joined DCU after completing a PhD in experimental atomic physics. Not long after, he taught a class that would change his career. "I had given a really good lecture, if I can say so myself, but the next day in a tutorial class, the students could not apply or reason about the things they had learned the day before.”

He realised the issue was his teaching method and started to do physics education research, then ended up taking a sabbatical year to focus on this at the University of Washington (UW). “I was very lucky I could use a whole year to learn the ropes with one of the best physics education research groups in the world.” 

He learned first-hand how they developed educational materials, taught them in small-group tutorials, researched what worked and didn’t work, and then improved the materials. He took great pride when the UW experts trialled some materials he had developed. 

Applying new theories of physics education
Back at DCU, Paul applied what he had learned. “I developed a new second year module in electromagnetism and based the module on tutorials that guide students to develop their understanding. I used lectures only sparingly to support the tutorials, rather than the other way around.” 

He also started to teach future physics teachers on the Science Education programme using similar ideas, and got to supervise two PhD students who developed new materials for first year physics labs and new materials for physics teacher education. 

Becoming a multidisciplinary researcher
Paul works a lot with colleagues across the Faculty of Science and Health and DCU’s Institute of Education. “I’ve been fortunate to work with colleagues in physics, maths, chemistry, and general science education on both campuses. Through my links with UW and the CASTeL research centre at DCU, I’ve had the chance to start many new collaborations and do exciting research.” 

“If there isn’t a good chance that what I do makes a difference to the students, I’m not interested,” he says. “I have come to value learning to learn and developing reasoning and other skills as much as acquiring subject knowledge. You really need both. I now see myself as a physicist, an educator, and an educational researcher all at once.” 

Paul has chaired the Junior Cycle Science and Leaving Cert Physics development groups. “A new syllabus or subject specification always ends up being a compromise,” he says, “but I am happy the new specifications encourage that balance of developing skills and acquiring knowledge.”

Paul van Kampen, School of Physical Sciences

Programme Chair, Physics General Entry

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