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By Emily Conover
A new resource is available for physics departments that want to boost the number of their graduates qualified to teach high school physics: a book that catalogs best practices for teacher preparation in physics. Recruiting and Educating Future Physics Teachers: Case Studies and Effective Practices targets physics faculty members who haven’t previously thought much about encouraging undergraduates to become physics teachers, says Cody Sandifer of Towson University, a co-editor of the peer-reviewed compilation. “We’re trying to get them excited about it and show them ways they can do that.”
Qualified physics teachers are in short supply these days. According to APS Director of Education and Diversity Ted Hodapp, fewer than half of high school physics courses are taught by someone with a significant background in the subject. Hodapp and others hope to improve that statistic by encouraging successful physics teacher education programs to share their methods. “This was born out of the idea that we actually wanted to get people writing about effective practices” for teaching physics, he says.
Although physics teacher education is typically handled by education departments, physics teacher production shoots up when physics departments are engaged, says Hodapp. Encouraging physics departments to produce teachers is the goal of the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) — a partnership between APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers — which produced the book.
Two print copies of the book will be mailed out to every physics department in the country, and it is also available online. It comprises 21 papers, including case studies of thriving programs at institutions like the University of Arkansas, Middle Tennessee State University, and Seattle Pacific University. The book includes sections on recruiting students to become physics teachers, preparing them to teach effectively, and mentoring them. And it provides an important avenue for researchers to share their work. “There aren’t a lot of places where you can publish peer-reviewed articles that are really focused on the practice of preparing physics teachers,” says APS Associate Director of Education and Diversity Monica Plisch.
A previous PhysTEC book, published in 2011, collected existing literature from journals like Physical Review Special Topics — Physics Education Research and the American Journal of Physics. While this earlier book was intended for physics education researchers, Sandifer says, the new one has a more general audience, aiming to reach physics faculty and department chairs. It consists of brand-new invited and contributed papers.
The book touches on some important strategies for physics departments looking to encourage would-be teachers. “There’s not one thing you should be doing — there are usually lots of things you should be doing to make sure you have a successful program,” Sandifer said. These include mentoring, working with local teachers, and giving students early opportunities to get a taste of leading a classroom.
“It’s oftentimes easier to get an undergraduate research experience than it is to find an early teaching experience as an undergraduate,” says Plisch.”That is a problem because many students don’t realize they might really enjoy teaching unless they’ve had that experience”
Coordination between physics departments and schools of education is important to make sure that students get a good experience, Sandifer says, as is making sure that students can graduate with both a teaching certification and a physics degree in as short a time as possible.
It’s important that physics departments themselves employ good teaching practices, Sandifer says. Otherwise students will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of their instructors — for example, over-reliance on lectures. In the best programs, “They get to see effective physics instruction and then they get to do it themselves when they get out into the schools.”
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Emily Conover
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
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