APS News

Featured PhysTEC School: University of Arizona

By Ernie Tretkoff

Ed. Note: This is the first in a projected series of articles on PhysTEC schools and their programs.
Ingrid Novodvorsky addresses a meeting at APS headquarters in 2004. Photo Credit: Bernard Khoury
Ingrid Novodvorsky addresses a meeting at APS headquarters in 2004. Photo Credit: Bernard Khoury

With a unique science teacher preparation program, the University of Arizona has greatly increased the number of undergraduates training to become physical science teachers. The University of Arizona is also one of the institutions participating in PhysTEC, the APS/AAPT/AIP-led program to improve physics teacher preparation.

The UA science teacher preparation program was established in 1999, when the Dean of the College of Science, disappointed by the low numbers of science teachers produced by the College of Education, hired some new faculty members, one in each of several science departments, who would devote themselves to designing a new program to prepare secondary school teachers in the sub-fields of physics, biology, chemistry, and earth science.

Ingrid Novodvorsky, a physics education researcher and former high school teacher, joined the physics department to direct the science teacher preparation program. The first students began the program in the fall of 2000, and five graduated in 2001. The program now trains about 20 science teachers a year–several times as many as the College of Education was producing before the science teacher prep program began.

The UA science teacher preparation program lets undergraduate science students graduate in their disciplinary majors and simultaneously complete the teacher preparation courses to become eligible for teacher certification. This provides the students a degree of flexibility not common among other teacher preparation programs. In addition, the students graduate with a degree in science, rather than an education degree. "They see themselves as more marketable with a degree in physics," said Novodvorsky.

The students in this unique program take teaching courses that are focused specifically on the subject they plan to teach, rather than a mix of subject areas. This allows for a unique blend of science and pedagogy in the courses. So, for instance, students hoping to become physics teachers might learn about specific technologies that they could use in physics labs, said Novodvorsky. In addition to learning teaching methods, the students in these courses review some science content. "We find that even though they’ve taken science classes, there are gaps in their understanding," said Novodvorsky.

"Teaching physics is a different kind of skill. You need to know the content and you need to know how to explain it," said Ted Hodapp, APS Director of Education. The UA program is turning out super teachers, he said.

The program promotes various student-centered methods of teaching, but emphasizes using whatever technique is appropriate for a particular topic, said Novodvorsky. The focus is on making sure students learn and understand.

Novodvorsky meets frequently with her counterparts in the other science departments, and although the science teacher preparation program is contained within the College of Science, it retains close ties with the University’s College of Education. "It’s an interdisciplinary program," said Novodvorsky.

Students in the program are given plenty of opportunity to work with mentor teachers in area middle and high schools. This is an especially important component of the program, said Novodvorsky.

The University of Arizona is one of the original Primary Program Institutions in the PhysTEC collaboration. "PhysTEC came about a year after we started our program. That collaboration has been a really nice fit with what we were already doing," said Novodvorsky.

PhysTEC provides the funding for the UA physics department’s "teacher-in-residence," a teacher from a local school who mentors the students and recent graduates, and works with the department on revising courses. "The teacher-in-residence provides a kind of reality check, and they carry a lot of weight with the students. It does make a difference," said Novodvorsky.

Hodapp also emphasizes the value of the teacher-in-residence. New teachers who have good mentors are more likely to stick with teaching, he said. "PhysTEC identifies mentoring as critical," said Hodapp.

Within the UA physics department, there is a lot of respect and support for the science teacher preparation program, said Novodvorsky. The department realizes that training teachers is part of their mission, and they encourage students with any interest in teaching to consider the teacher prep program. In fact, when the program started, Novodvorsky thought she would have difficulty recruiting students, but it has turned out that the program has as many students as it can handle.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff