Meet New Associate Dean of Graduate Education Eric Brewe, PhD
by sarah hojsak
October 18, 2023
Professor of Physics and Science Education Eric Brewe, PhD, was recently appointed to the role of Associate Dean of Graduate Education in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Brewe’s research focuses on the teaching and learning of physics, with the goal of improving the way students learn. A career spent researching physics pedagogy as well as diversity, equity and inclusion issues led Brewe to want to make a difference for more students, outside of the physics classroom. He saw the opportunity to become associate dean as an avenue for serving graduate students across disciplines.
"I've been involved in educational reform and trying to make educational systems—mostly within physics, but sometimes other places—better for students,” he explained. “I thought it was time to try something different and work on improving educational systems for students from a different vantage point.”
As the newest associate dean, Brewe’s work will be a key part of the college’s efforts to produce citizens of the world who are prepared to address the challenges of today’s society. He hopes to use this leadership role to help build interdisciplinary connections across programs as well as promote the diversity of our student population. Accomplishing his goals will be a challenge, Brewe acknowledges, but a welcome and worthy one.
Learn more about Brewe in this Q&A.
Can you tell us a little about your background and academic career?
I went to undergrad in Indiana at a small college called DePauw, where I was a physics major. My plan was always to be a professor, but I knew stunningly little about what that meant and how to get there, so I went to Arizona State University and got an interdisciplinary PhD in physics and physics education. At ASU I had a number of really great mentors (David Hestenes and Dale Baker in particular), who gave me some outstanding opportunities to understand what it meant to be an academic. I then got a position teaching physics at Hawaii Pacific University and spent the first five years of my academic career there, followed by nine years at Florida International University where I helped grow a research group focused on education research. When my wife got a job in Philadelphia, I started looking for a position here and ended up at Drexel. Drexel has been a really ideal university for me, as I have a group of excellent colleagues, like Jen Stanford in Biology, Adam Fontecchio in Engineering, Jason Silverman and Val Klein in the School of Education, all of whom care deeply about making education better for STEM students at Drexel.
How did you become interested in physics education research? Why is it important?
In graduate school, I started out doing condensed matter experimental physics. It was Arizona in the summer, it was about 115 degrees, and the thing they wanted me to do that first summer of graduate school was to get into a tube and clean it out, because I was working in a cleanroom (an engineered space that maintains a very low concentration of airborne particulates). I'm neither very clean nor a very good plumber, so I realized that this project was not the one for me. I was sort of lost as to what I was going to do—I knew I wanted to be a professor, but I didn't know that research into the teaching and learning of physics was even a thing. One of the people that I met in my first year of graduate school was doing education work and invited me to join their research group. I thought, okay, that sounds interesting. At the time, it was a new field, Discipline Based Education Research. The real premise is that in order to make improvements to an educational system, you have to be a legitimate part of that system. It is both pretty exciting and not revolutionary, that a discipline like physics should really care and study how we prepare the next generation. I've been working on education-related projects ever since, trying to make sure that we're doing things that give students the best chance to succeed. It's fulfilling work that feels valuable and worthwhile.
What are your responsibilities as Associate Dean of Graduate Education?
I will chair the graduate curriculum committee and make sure that the faculty ownership of the curriculum is well-executed. A big part of the job will be working on graduate student recruitment, hiring and retention. The biggest thing, though, is working with the other Associate Deans and Dean Brown to think through all kinds of emergent issues. It's an exciting time. Ultimately, the goal is to make the experience better for, in my domain, graduate students at Drexel. Graduate students are such an integral part of the instructional mission at Drexel. If you do a good job of taking care of your graduate students, then they will in turn do a good job of taking care of the undergraduates they're teaching. It's sort of a virtuous cycle.
The College of Arts and Sciences offers a wide variety of graduate programs. What are some of the challenges and opportunities this presents?
One of the biggest challenges right now, as I'm about a month in, is just trying to get to know all the different programs. All of them have different idiosyncrasies. I’m trying to learn from the department heads and program directors about their needs and what will help them be successful and stand out at Drexel.
This allows us different ways to think about interdisciplinary programs. Disciplines serve a purpose in in a lot of ways, but they also are not the future of generating knowledge. Physics integrates really well with biology, chemistry, education and other disciplines. The forefronts of knowledge don't care about disciplines—they care about what's interesting. So it's a challenge, but it's also exciting. And I think that being in the College of Arts and Sciences, where there are so many different degrees, we’re in a great position to find ways to capitalize on opportunities to be more transdisciplinary.
What are you most looking forward to or hoping to accomplish in this role?
I think that the challenge of working in a complex system like academia, and arts and sciences in particular, is exciting—but you don't know what every day is going to bring. There are so many interesting opportunities. A lot of my research involves social sciences, so I'm interested in the idea of developing new programs that could draw in some of the departments that don't currently have graduate programs. And we really ought to be striving to make sure that the graduate students at Drexel reflect the citizens here in Philadelphia; I think that's important. I'd love to see a diversification of the graduate student population. I think that that's something that we as a whole team and as a university can work toward, and I hope I can provide some of that leadership.