APS Education Director
Over the last 20 years, national reports on the state of education in the US have decried the inadequate preparation and lack of competency of new science teachers at all levels K-12, according to Fredrick Stein, Director of Education at APS and PhysTEC's principal investigator. The reports cited inadequate understanding of science content, and the lack of student-centered, inquiry-based approaches in science classrooms. While there has been some improvement over the last decade, "many of our high school physics courses are still modeled after college courses that are not inquiry-based and do not develop good conceptual understanding," says Stein. "And as indicated by low enrollment figures, [such courses] do not interest many of our students. The overwhelming need for inservice teacher enhancement programs in physics at the most basic level points to the failure of programs in our colleges and universities to prepare students adequately for teaching."
Based on the concept that teachers "teach as they were taught," PhysTEC was proposed in 1999 as an effective mechanism to greatly increase the role of physics departments, in collaboration with education departments nationwide, to radically improve the science preparation of teachers (see APS News, October 2000). "PhysTEC inverts the strategy of university-based projects involving all science departments, to that of a nationally recognized coalition within a single discipline, aimed at a large number of colleges and universities that are linked through the professional societies," says Stein. "This project also builds upon the many years of research and work within the physics community involving teacher preparation."
The program incorporates exemplary components of past NSF-supported projects that have proven successful in making long-term changes in teacher preparation. These include a teacher-in-residence program, providing for local K-12 science teachers to assist faculty with both team-teaching and course revisions, as well as a long-term, active collaboration among the physics and education departments and the local school community. It also calls for the redesign of content for elementary and secondary science courses with an emphasis on inquiry-based, hands-on approaches to teaching and learning.
PhysTEC's efforts will kick off immediately with an initial set of six primary institutions that share a strong commitment to revising their teacher preparation program, including that of elementary and secondary science teachers, according to Stein. The six initial institutions, selected after a series of nationwide site visits by Stein and his collaborators at AAPT and AIP, are Ball State University, Oregon State University, University of Arizona, University of Arkansas, Western Michigan University, and Xavier University of Louisiana. "The NSF grant allows us to provide these institutions with the support and technical assistance necessary to undertake this pioneering task," says Stein. "Now we hope to translate that into better-prepared science teachers who are committed to student-centered, inquiry-based, hands-on approaches to teaching from the moment they hit the classroom."
Stein admits that several obstacles still exist to the success of PhysTEC, most notably enticing faculty members at research universities to turn their creativity toward improving teaching, as well as persuading physics departments and schools of education to communicate and work together. Yet in both cases, says Stein, "The direct involvement of the key physics professional societies can play a major role in producing positive, lasting changes in the way universities interact with undergraduate students and thus, their prospective teachers."
Participating PhysTEC Institutions members (from l to r): Al Rosenthal, Western Michigan University; Elia Eschenazi & Stephen Rodrigue, Xavier; David Grosnick, Ball State; James Lilly, Xavier; Ruth Howes, Ball State; Henri Jansen, Oregon State; Marcia Fetters, Western Michigan University; Gay Stewart & Caroline Beller, U of Arkansas; Ken Krane, Oregon State. Not shown: Charles Payne, Ball State; Ingrid Novodvorsky & James McCullen, U of Arizona. (Alicia Chang/APS)