APS News

APS-Led Teacher Prep Program is Seeing Results

By Ernie Tretkoff

Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC), about to begin its fourth year, continues to work to improve teacher education, and is seeing some success. Led by the APS, the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), and the American Institute of Physics (AIP), PhysTEC aims to produce more and better-prepared science teachers who are committed to inquiry-based, hands-on teaching and learning.

Research has shown that students learn better when they are engaged in active learning, said Fred Stein, APS Director of Education and Outreach. Very few students can learn well by listening to a lecture, and many introductory labs are "cookbook" exercises in following directions. Instead, said Stein, students should be engaged in making discoveries themselves. There has been a movement towards more active learning, but it's hard for many teachers to change how they teach. "We teach the way we were taught," said Stein.

To improve science teaching, PhysTEC aims to reach undergraduates who plan to become K-12 science teachers, and expose them to hands-on, inquiry-based instruction. At the participating institutions, physics departments work with education departments to improve preservice teaching by implementing the following six components of the PhysTEC program.

  1. An active collaboration among the physics department, the education department, and local schools;
  2. A Teacher-in-Residence (TIR) program that provides for a local K-12 teacher to assist faculty in course revisions and teaching; 
  3. The redesign of physics courses, including the use of more interactive techniques; 
  4. The redesign of elementary and secondary science methods courses to emphasize inquiry-based teaching; 
  5. The establishment of a mentoring program for novice science teachers; 
  6. Participation of physics faculty in improving and expanding school experiences for perservice students.

Though it's too early to have much data, Stein said that some successes can already be seen. An external evaluation will assess the effectiveness of PhysTEC in improving graduates' understanding of physics and skills in inquiry-based instruction.

In addition to successfully implementing the core program components, some of the participating institutions have gone beyond the basic expectations. For instance, some PhysTEC schools have worked with chemistry departments and helped them adopt some of the PhysTEC components. Other institutions have collaborated with local community colleges. Some schools hired new faculty members in physics and education to help meet the needs of PhysTEC. One school instituted a special effort to recruit minority students to careers in teaching.

To introduce the new TIRs to the project, PhysTEC held a TIR Orientation and Mentoring Workshop in Sacramento on July 30-31. The Orientation was planned and presented by present and past TIRs. The Mentoring Workshop was presented by Mike Wolter, the TIR at Ball State University in 2003-2004. Wolter was a PhysTEC mentor this past year and in addition enrolled in the State of Indiana mentoring program.

The six initial participating universities were: Ball State University, Oregon State University, University of Arkansas, University of Arizona, Western Michigan University, and Xavier University of Louisiana.

In the past year, PhysTEC was able to use funds raised by the APS itself to support three more institutions: Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo, which completed its first year in the program; Towson University in Baltimore, and the University of Colorado at Boulder, both of which will begin their first year this fall.

PhysTEC is now almost halfway through its NSF funding, with three more years to go. The APS capital campaign will provide additional funding. Stein hopes PhysTEC will expand to a total of 12 schools of various sizes, and that these 12 schools will serve as models for other institutions to implement some aspects of the PhysTEC program.

This fall, PhysTEC will lose its founder and director, Fred Stein, who will retire in September. But Stein said he's ready to hand the program off to his successor. "I feel like I'm leaving it in good shape," he said.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette