APS News

APS Leads Effort for Teacher Preparation

The APS is taking the lead in helping physics departments play a major role in the preparation of physics and physical science teachers. In a partnership with the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) and the American Institute for Physics (AIP), the APS has proposed a comprehensive program aimed at significantly improving the science background and the instructional approaches by (1) encouraging an active collaboration between the physics department and the school or department of education; and (2) involving the local school community through the employment of a local Teacher-in-Residence. Dubbed the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC), the proposal is being prepared for submission to the National Science Foundation in support of activities that would dramatically increase the role of physics departments nation-wide in the preparation of science teachers. As proposed, over the next five years 20 universities and colleges will form a coalition with the three societies to improve teacher preparation, with six to eight selected as primary program institutions.

From 1984 to the present, various national reports on science education have decried the inadequate preparation and lack of competency of new science teachers at all levels of K-12 education, calling for the radical reform of ineffective and antiquated teacher preparation program. According to APS Director of Education and Outreach Fred Stein, recent reports "continue to be critical of the ability of teachers to provide their students with a sufficient level of understanding so students can contribute to an increasingly complex, information-rich and technical society." Inadequate understanding of science content (physics in particular) and a lack of student-centered, inquiry-based approaches in science classrooms are the two most frequently cited criticisms. "The results of these deficiencies are high school graduates who lack problem-solving abilities and adequate knowledge of science, and are unprepared for the worlds of work and higher education," says Stein.

It is hoped that PhysTEC will provide physics departments with the support and technical assistance they need to dramatically improve science teacher preparation, and to widely distribute new teaching models through the combined resources of the APS, AAPT and AIP. "If it is true that students teach as they were taught, then we believe that to improve physics and physical science teaching and learning in K-12, universities must model effective teaching and learning approaches for prospective physics and physical science teachers," says Stein. Rather than focusing on many scientific disciplines at one collaborative site, PhysTEC will concentrate its efforts and resources to reform one discipline at many major university sites. It will build in part on the pioneering physics education research of the past 20 years. For example, PhysTEC will draw on the experience of Lillian McDermott of the University of Washington, who delineated the deficiencies of the numerical problem-solving approach, as well as Dean Zollman at Kansas State and John Layman of the University of Maryland, who promote active learning through the creation of inquiry-based university physics courses.

The first phase of the program began last September with a series of professional contacts, interviews and visits to institutions. Selection criteria included their degree of enthusiasm to model good teaching practices; their commitment to be actively involved with preservice teacher reform; their willingness to work in collaboration with faculty from the school or department of education; their degree of success with previous efforts; and their willingness to shift their own resources to the PhysTEC program. The initial sites include a mix of Research One and smaller institutions, as well as one or more members of the historically black colleges and universities.

Once PhysTEC begins major effort will be made to implement two key components: a teacher-in-residence who will work full-time in the physics department, and a restructured introductory physics course that will promote active learning in an integrated lecture and laboratory format. "This model will encourage less reliance on the authoritarian, teacher-dominated transfer model of science instruction, and will allow a more spontaneous interchange of ideas to discover relationships, rather than confirm them," says Stein. There will also be a strong emphasis on field-based experiences of future teachers by increasing contact between the physics departments and teachers in local public schools, initially through outstanding in-service teachers and, later, through former teachers-in-residence.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette