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Featured PhysTEC University: Arkansas Ramps Up Teacher Preparation

PhysTEC future teacher Matthew Jones, a student in the Master of Arts in Teaching program at the University of Arkansas, works with a middle school student on an inquiry-based science project.
PhysTEC future teacher Matthew Jones, a student in the Master of Arts in Teaching program at the University of Arkansas, works with a middle school student on an inquiry-based science project.

By Ernie Tretkoff

In the ten years before the University of Arkansas PhysTEC program got started, only one teacher in the entire state had become certified to teach physics. That is changing, in part thanks to the PhysTEC program at the University of Arkansas.

PhysTEC, an APS/AAPT/AIP–led project, encourages physics and education departments at participating institutions to work together to improve the education of physics teachers. Schools that participate in PhysTEC commit to implementing several reforms to improve teacher preparation, including increasing collaboration between the physics and education departments, revising introductory courses to be more inquiry-based, and having a “teacher-in-residence” from the local school system, who mentors students and provides advice to the faculty.

The University of Arkansas PhysTEC program turns out two or three new physics teachers a year, says Gay Stewart, a physics professor and director of the University of Arkansas PhysTEC program. These new teachers are better prepared and more enthusiastic about teaching physics.

Stewart has long been interested in education, but teacher preparation hadn’t been as much of a priority for some members the Arkansas physics department. “When we first heard about PhysTEC, we were very excited, because I’ve always felt that physics departments are responsible for education,” said Stewart. “Before PhysTEC, I was the one interested in education, so if something came in, it was handed to me. I was the lead person for all worrying about education,” she says. Now, the whole department is more interested and aware of the importance of teacher preparation, she says. “Having this APS-sponsored program that focuses on better teaching and learning has really raised the awareness,” said Stewart.

One of the key components of PhysTEC is revising introductory physics courses to be more inquiry- based. The University of Arkansas has revised physics courses and created many new materials to support the new courses, with a special focus on making laboratories more exploratory. One of the most important changes, says Stewart, has been a new teaching assistant preparation program, which trains TAs to run the new inquiry-based labs.

Tests show that the students in the revised courses are indeed learning more, says Stewart. Some students initially feel uncomfortable with inquiry-based learning because they are used to being fed information, rather than discovering things for themselves. Stewart said that one unhappy student wrote in a course evaluation, “Of course I learned more in this course than in others–I had to figure everything out myself.”

The revised introductory classes have also led more students to consider teaching as a career, even if they had not previously thought about teaching. These students see a model of good teaching, they see that teaching is important, and they begin to think about becoming teachers themselves. “We’ve had several cases where people had never considered being a teacher, and they said the class was a lot of fun, and they came and asked ‘how could I get involved in teaching'?" said Stewart. Some students who plan to teach other subjects, including chemistry and math, have said they were motivated to go into teaching by the introductory physics class, said Stewart.

Future teachers of all subjects have become more comfortable with physics as a result of the new courses, said Stewart. “Before we revised courses, when teachers who were not trained in physics would get leaned on to teach physics, they were uncomfortable, but now the ones we've trained are more enthusiastic about it. Before we revised the courses, no one was happy when they got asked to teach physics. Now they’re happy,” said Stewart.

In addition to the other reforms, PhysTEC has brought physics and education faculty together. For instance, says Stewart, they have a “teacher of teachers luncheon,” which gets physics and education professors together to discus ways to betters serve students who may be interested in teaching.

This year, the University of Arkansas’ PhysTEC Teacher-in-Residence is an elementary school teacher, unlike previous years when a high school teacher has filled the position, said Stewart. Consultations with the education department made it clear that they needed to work on elementary education as well, she said. Future elementary school teachers are now learning some physics for elementary school, and the Teacher-in-Residence is working with the education department on ways to use science to address multiple standards. Elementary school is an especially good time for kids to learn science, says Stewart, “All kids like science until we teach them that it’s hard.”

Coalition Provides Latest Information On Teacher Education

The PhysTEC project at Arkansas is using many results from physics education research and sharing them through the coalition of schools brought together by the PhysTEC grant. This coalition, the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (www.ptec.org), provides a central clearinghouse for information, ideas and innovations in developing and maintaining teacher preparation programs. Institutions, departments or individuals who would like to hear about some of the most successful innovations throughout the country should contact Ted Hodapp (hodapp@aps.org), APS’s lead in this project as well as the Director of Education and Outreach.