Research Interests

Educational Reconstruction of General Relativity

Despite its far-reaching scientific, philosophical, and cultural importance, there are few attempts of bringing general relativity to classrooms. I use the Model of Educational Reconstruction (MER) [1] as  a theoretical frame to make general relativity teachable and learnable at upper secondary school level. MER is a particularly useful frame, because it is well suited to investigate the educational relevance of novel topics in physics that have not entered mainstream education yet. The model guides the development of my online learning resources in general relativity. Naturally, this process is an iterative one and findings from the development and evaluation deepen understanding of learning processes.

The picture shows a blackboard with science symbols. One mathematical diagramm, Einstein's famous E=mc^2 equation, another equation and an apple tree with a falling apple.
(Image Magdalena Kersting, All Rights Reserved)

Conceptual Understanding in Einsteinian Physics

General relativity challenges our understanding of space and time. Even though it is possible to communicate key ideas in a qualitative way, learners struggle to understand the abstract concepts. We lack experience of relativistic phenomena, because the realm of relativity covers extreme situations such as traveling at the speed of light close to a black hole. My research aims to study learning processes in relativity. In particular, I seek to understand conceptual understanding of curved spacetime. Employing a diverse range of analytical tools such as interaction, thematic, or metaphor analysis, I study how learning in Einsteinian physics becomes visible in social interaction - often on a fine-grain scale.


A picture of a chalkboard. In the middle there is one long equation describing the Riemann curvature tensor in general relativity. On the left hand side there is a prism and on the right hand side an atom.
(Image Magdalena Kersting, All Rights Reserved)

Talking Science & Collaborative Learning

My research is based on a sociocultural perspective that views knowledge as constructed within and distributed among learners in the science classrooms. Students master science by "talking physics" which plays a central role in their conceptual development. This approach is important in general relativity, because upper secondary students cannot rely on the theory's advanced mathematical framework. Employing a novel approach, I use student conversations as an element of analysis: In the classrooms, students record group discussions with their mobile phones as part of the learning activities. Access to these conversations enables me to gain deeper insights into learning processes in general relativity.

A picture of a chalkboard. On the chalkboard a book, two speech bubbles and a  mathematical graph is drawn.
(Image Magdalena Kersting, All Rights Reserved)

History and Philosophy of Science

Science educators have to move beyond traditional content-focused instruction to teach concepts of Einsteinian physics. I am interested to see how approaches that emphasize  historical, epistemological, and sociocultural aspects might foster understanding and motivation for general relativity. Focusing on the role of History, Philsophy, and Nature of Science (HPS), I  have conducted focus group interviews with secondary students which have confirmed that the historical development of general relativity and its philosophical consequences are indeed very engaging. After all, Albert Einstein has turned classical physics upside down and has given us a completely new understanding of the universe.

A picture of a chalkboard with 5 scientific symbols: an atom, a scale, a pendulum, an electricity machine, and a graph depicting oscillatory motion.
(Image Magdalena Kersting, All Rights Reserved)

[1] Duit, Reinders, Harald Gropengießer, Ulrich Kattmann, Michael Komorek, and Ilka Parchmann. “The Model of Educational Reconstruction - A Framework for Improving Teaching and Learning Science.” In Science Education Research and Practice in Europe: Retrospective and Prospective, edited by Doris Jorde and Justin Dillon, 13–37. Sense Publishers, 2012.