Dr. Hillary Swanson

Assistant Professor

Dr. Hillary Swanson

Contact Information

Phone: (435) 797-0782
Email: hillary.swanson@usu.edu
Additional Information:

Educational Background

PhD, Science and Mathematics Education - University of California at Berkeley


Across her teaching and research, Hillary likes to share her favorite Einstein quote: “The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.” The idea has been a driving force behind her research, which explores how engaging in scientific practices helps students refine their everyday thinking into scientific understanding.

Hillary brings years of experience as a classroom teacher to her academic work. Before transitioning to research, she taught physics, chemistry, and math at high schools including High Tech High, a project-based school in San Diego, California

Through her experience as a teacher, Hillary became interested in understanding how learning works. Her research focuses on how students develop new understanding by refining and building on their prior thinking, and how instruction can support this process. Before joining the ITLS faculty, Hillary worked at the Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling (CCL) and the Tangible Interaction Design and Learning Lab (TIDAL) at Northwestern University.

Students who are interested in designing science instruction and investigating the cognitive mechanisms through which learning occurs will be especially interested in Hillary’s work.

Featured Work

Hillary directs the Learning Dynamics Lab at Utah State University. Learn more about her current projects and the LDL research team.

Characterizing Student Theory Building

This project explores middle school students’ engagement in different approaches to scientific theory building. The goal is to characterize the nature of student theory building and understand how engagement in theory building helps students refine their theories and their thinking. Products of the work include a library of block-based modeling microworlds and related curricula for middle school science classrooms.

Characterizing Data Practices in Science

The goal of this project is to characterize data practices by interviewing scientists involved in empirical research. Findings will ultimately inform the design of instruction focused on helping students learn science through engagement in data practices.

Understanding the Coriolis Force

The goal of this project is to develop undergraduate physics instruction on the Coriolis force. The project is focused on identifying the productive ideas college physics students bring to their learning and developing instruction that leverages these ideas, through both thought experiments and computational simulations.

Research Focus

Broadly, Hillary’s work explores how students’ everyday thinking can play a productive role in their science learning. More specifically, she investigates how classroom instruction can be designed to meaningfully engage students in scientific practices, and how their engagement in these practices refines their thinking. Her current research investigates the following questions about student engagement in scientific theory-building practices:

  • What does scientific theory building look like in the middle school classroom?
  • How does engaging in scientific theory building help students develop skills for theory building?
  • How does engaging in scientific theory building help students refine their everyday thinking?

Selected Publications

See Hillary’s C.V or Google Scholar page for a comprehensive list of publications.

Swanson, H., & Clarke-Midura, J. (2021). Integrating formative assessment and feedback into scientific theory-building practices and instruction. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy, & Practice. https://doi.org/10.1080/0969594X.2021.1929830

Swanson, H., & Trninic, D. (2021). Stepping out of rhythm: An embodied artifact for noticing rate of change. Educational Technology Research and Development. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-020-09933-8

Swanson, H., Sherin, B., Wilensky, U. (2021). Characterizing student theory building in computational modeling. In de Vries, E., Ahn, J., & Hod, Y. (Eds.), 15th International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS 2021). Bochum, Germany: International Society of the Learning Sciences.

Swanson, H., Sherin, B., Wilensky, U. (2021). Refining student thinking through computational modeling. In de Vries, E., Ahn, J., & Hod, Y. (Eds.), 15th International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS 2021). Bochum, Germany: International Society of the Learning Sciences.

Swanson, H. (2019). Refining student thinking through scientific theory building. In E. Manalo (Ed.) Deeper learning, dialogic learning, and critical thinking: Research-based strategies for the classroom (pp. 67-83). Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429323058-5

Swanson, H., & Collins, A. (2018). How failure is productive in the creative process: Refining student explanations through theory-building discussion. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 30, 54-63. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tsc.2018.03.005