Forcing students to work together in small groups, interspersing word problems during a lecture that tie physics, calculus and real-world scenarios, and then having students explain their work in front of their peers, does not describe the typical college physics class.

But at UCF, it is becoming the norm. The physics department is on a mission to help its students learn physics in a meaningful way that goes beyond formulas. That’s why the school is encouraging students to take their basic physics courses via the “studio model” rather than the traditional lecture.

“Research shows that students learn better this way,” said Talat Rahman, chair of the department. “We’ve followed several groups of students in our traditional lecture and our studio model, and the students who go through our studio model perform better. If we want students to turn into leaders who solve some of our big problems, they need a better and deeper understanding from the very beginning.”

It’s an effort that is getting a lot of attention from national organizations. UCF’s physics department last year earned a two-year National Science Foundation grant to expand the program. The hope is to turn what UCF does into a national model that can help strengthen the nation’s core understanding of physics and demystify that it is a “hard” career choice.

That’s why Rahman and her colleagues in 2010 began restructuring the way physics is taught at UCF. Slowly, more sections of the studio model have been added, although lectures are still offered. About 2,500 students take the introductory  physics course each year at UCF.

“It’s tough,” said professor Eduardo Mucciolo, who teaches one of the sections. “You can’t just sit there and expect to pass. Students have to work and so do the professors.”

When Mucciolo first began teaching the class he spent 30-36 hours per week preparing for the class and six hours teaching it. After teaching the course a few semesters he’s down to 2-3 hours of prep time each week.

“It’s worth it,” he said. “You can see that although they struggle initially, they really understand by the end if they put in the effort.”

The class is structured so 90 students sit in groups of three with one computer monitor for each group. The professor introduces a topic and the students have a conversation with the professor about the topic and how it is used in the real world. Then they launch into theory, but before 20 minutes has elapsed, the professor is asking students to solve a problem based on what they are talking about.

Students have white boards, calculators and each other to figure it out. After three to five minutes they must submit their answers via the web page. The professor can then call up the results of the class answers. He doesn’t say who is right. He begins to call on students to explain how they got their answer. And he doesn’t simply say that’s right or wrong. He asks other students to agree or disagree and then defend their answer.

On a recent afternoon, Mucciolo tossed a baseball up several times to help illustrate an elusive detail about acceleration. He used the visual to help prompt student’s brains, but didn’t give them the answer to a question he posed after tossing the ball. After 15 minutes, the students figured out the right answer and could apply the concept with other examples, not just a regurgitation of the baseball model.

The two-hour class meets three times a week and includes another one-hour tutoring session in which students get help from student learning assistants. That’s another difference in classroom approaches. Instead of traditional teacher’s assistants, the class has student learning assistants walk around the classroom along with the professor to help students and prod them to think beyond formulas. The assistants have already successfully completed the course and are paid a stipend to help the new students with one-on-one help during class time and tutoring sessions.

“It was one of the toughest classes I’ve ever had,” said Adam Althar, a freshman who is studying computer engineering. “You have to pay attention and participate. I’m not really a group kind of guy, but I learned.”

Althar is one of the student leaders in Mucciolo’s class and he walked around the classroom helping engineering, physics and non-physics students alike as some struggled to understand concepts and then apply them.

Data supports what the professors say they see in the classroom.

“When the same instructor taught the Physics II course in both studio mode and lecture mode, the students in studio mode had nearly double the improvement in their scores on a standard conceptual assessment than the students in lecture mode,” said Jacquelyn Chini, director of the Learning Assistant Program, who also teaches the studio class.

The studio model helps take high school graduates and give them a deeper understanding of the principles of physics, Chini said.

But that’s just one the many things UCF’s physics department is doing.

The department also is part of the national Physics Teacher Education Coalition (Phys-TEC). The goal of the group is “to improve and promote the education of future physics teachers” to address a critical shortage of well-prepared physics and physical science teachers in the U.S.

The American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers have led the coalition with support from the American Institute of Physics and the National Science Foundation. The UCF Physics Department was recently awarded a PhysTEC comprehensive site grant, becoming one of 30 such sites funded by the organization.

The program provides hands-on physics experiences for middle and high school students and their teachers. Teachers are also provided specialized training to help them teach their younger students the fundamentals of physics in a fun way that stimulates more critical thinking.

The PhysTech grant will help UCF develop a national model of a physics teacher-preparation program. To that end, the physics department is working with the College of Education and Human Performance to develop a new major in the physics department for students who want to teach physics after they graduate.