University students' understanding of partial differential equations in physics

05 June 2020

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For more information please contact Prof. dr. Mieke De Cock, tel.: +32 16 32 42 48, mail: or Prof. dr. Johan Deprez, tel.: +32 16 37 66 66, mail:

You can apply for this job no later than August 17, 2020 via the online application tool

KU Leuven seeks to foster an environment where all talents can flourish, regardless of gender, age, cultural background, nationality or impairments. If you have any questions relating to accessibility or support, please contact us at

Ref. BAP-2020-395

Apply before 17 August 2020

You will be part of the Astronomy and (astro)Physics Education Research group at the Department of Physics and Astronomy of KU Leuven. KU Leuven, established in 1425, ranks number 45 on the Times Higher Education list. Moreover, according to the Reuters ranking, it is the seventh most innovative university worldwide (number one in Europe, after six American universities).

The Astronomy and (astro)Physics Education Research group conducts research into physics and STEM education. Research on astronomy education recently started. Current and former projects include research on effects of lab instruction, research on the role of mathematics in undergraduate physics learning, integrated STEM curriculum for secondary education and astronomy learning in planetaria.

The research will be carried out in close collaboration with the Mathematics Education Research group in the Department of Mathematics ( This group conducts research into mathematics education at upper level secondary and university undergraduate level. Current and former projects include research on mathematical reasoning of bachelor students in mathematics, visualization in solid geometry and large scale assessment of mathematical competency.

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Using mathematics in physics requires more than straightforward application of mathematical procedures. Despite intensive research, it is not yet understood how students can combine physical meaning with mathematical structure, especially in upper tertiary level. This project brings together expertise from physics and mathematics education research to investigate how students combine mathematical and physical concepts while studying partial differential equations (PDEs) in physics. We specifically selected this topic because it exemplifies best how physical phenomena are described by advanced mathematics. We will use and extend the concept of genetic decomposition from APOS theory to study student understanding of PDEs in physics. Our research methods include paper-and-pencil tests, task-based think-aloud interviews, teaching/learning interviews and design research. The ultimate goal is to better understand obstacles and possible scaffolds that allow us to design a learning environment that supports bridging mathematics and physics in the particular case of PDEs.


Candidates must have completed a master in physics, mathematics, engineering or equivalent; have strong interest and experience in teaching, especially at university level; a grade in teacher education in mathematics or physics brings added value. Candidates should be highly motivated and interested in educational research and should have excellent communication skills in English, both oral and in writing.


We offer a full-time PhD student position, in an interdisciplinary environment at the borders of physics, mathematics and educational sciences.