APS News

Site Visits To Identify Strong Candidates for New Education Program

Fred Stein
APS Education Director Fred Stein heads out the door on another site visit for the PhysTEC program.
Over the course of 12 weeks, several key staff members from the APS, the American Institute of Physics (AIP) and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) are visiting colleges and universities around the country to identify institutions to participate in a new joint project to improve science teacher preparation. In the past year, several national reports have emphasized that the most effective way to improve programs that prepare future teachers is by involving faculty from several academic departments across the institution. Called the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC), the project will enlist physics departments in collaboration with education departments to revise required courses and to enhance field experiences for prospective physics and science teachers.

With the help of planning grants from NSF and the Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education (FIPSE), initial site visits have been made to Florida State University, the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Western Michigan University, the University of Maryland, Oregon State University, Xavier University in New Orleans, the University of Arizona, and Ball State University. Fred Stein, APS Director of Education and principal investigator on these grants, brought his previous experience to APS to help shape this new program.

Not all of the above university programs are expected to match perfectly with the PhysTEC model, but by later this fall six to eight universities will be selected as test sites for the new program. In addition, another 5-10 colleges and universities will serve as Resource Institutions. Ultimately, says Jack Hehn of AIP and a co-principal investigator, "the long-term vision would be a few hundred colleges and universities whose physics departments are intensely interested in improving the way they educate teachers."

There are three key components to the PhysTEC program, according to Stein. The cornerstone of the PhysTEC success strategy is arranging for an outstanding high school teacher to spend a year in the physics department of each participating university. These teachers-in-residence (TIRs) will also work with the college of education and local schools. The concept, says Stein, is that the TIR will bring knowledge and experience gained from teaching student-centered science classes, and provide continuity between the physics courses, the science methods courses, and local high school science programs. They will help physics faculty revise targeted physics courses and will help teach science methods courses. "The TIR can provide a realistic understanding of what science is being taught and how it is now being taught in the schools," says Stein, "as well as offering valuable contacts with local teachers and school districts to improve practicum activities and the placement of student teachers."

Another central component of PhysTEC is restructuring and revision of targeted introductory courses and their instructional approaches to promote active learning, preferably in an integrated lecture and laboratory format. It is hoped that the redesigned courses "will encourage less reliance on the standard, teacher-dominated, transfer model of science instruction, and require a more spontaneous interchange of ideas," says Stein. Curriculum reform will likely draw from the burgeoning field of physics education research taking place at universities around the nation, according to Hehn, and will focus on instructional strategies such as bringing more inquiry-based, student-centered experiences into lecture sections through cooperative learning and peer-coaching techniques, and using appropriate learning technologies to enhance instruction.

The third key component to the PhysTEC program is to replace traditional science methods courses with inquiry-based courses that integrate learning theory, teaching methods and physics content. "This course should enable prospective teachers to teach future students to actually do science, which includes helping them develop scientific habits of mind," says John Layman, an emeritus University of Maryland professor and second co-principal investigator. "Hands-on experiences followed by structured reflection about what the student observed and what can be inferred, and how this improves understanding of science content, should be a significant part of the course."

Strong administrative support at all levels of the institution is also required to ensure the success of the PhysTEC model, according to Hehn. This includes the support of academic deans and provosts, as well as department chairs. A memorandum of understanding will be executed with each institution selected as part of PhysTEC, and these will be an important part of a major proposal that will be submitted to the NSF and FIPSE by the end of the year.

The prevailing question to be answered, according to Stein, is whether the PhysTEC model is a replicable concept. "If it is true that teachers teach as they were taught, then our vision for improving physical science and physics teaching and learning in K-12 is to have the universities model effective teaching/learning approaches in science courses for both majors and non-majors," he says. "This should impact all prospective physics and physical science teachers, including chemistry, geology and mathematics teachers, as well as elementary school teachers."

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette