Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Fall 2005 Newsletter



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Preparing Tomorrow's Physics Teachers

Eugenia Etkina

What does a physics teacher need to know and be able to do?

American students studying science are expected not only to master the fundamental concepts of the discipline but more importantly to understand the methods of inquiry in science. The workplace now expects graduates to be able to use scientific knowledge to design experimental investigations, devise and test models of natural phenomena, work collaboratively, and communicate effectively. Research in education demonstrates that the success of the current reform goals in K-12 science education depends on the preparation of teachers1,2. In addition to knowing the content and the methods of scientific inquiry teachers should be able to create learning environments in which students can master the concepts and processes of science while working with their peers.  Students will not learn if content knowledge is simply transmitted to them.

Teachers should know how people learn, how the human brain functions, how memory operates and how a brain develops with age. However, content knowledge and knowledge of learning and learners cannot be considered separate domains. Teachers should possess "special understandings and abilities that integrate their knowledge of science content, curriculum, learning, teaching, and students. This special knowledge called pedagogical content knowledge (PCK), distinguishes the science knowledge of teachers from that of scientists"1. Pedagogical content knowledge, defined by L. Shulman as "the special amalgam of content and pedagogy that is uniquely the providence of teachers, their own special form of professional understanding."3, has become a key word in teacher preparation and assessment. Another important idea is that teaching science based on the methods advocated by current reforms is fundamentally different from how teachers learned science themselves4. Yet research indicates that teachers tend to teach the way they have been taught.

Fig. 1. The structure of teacher knowledge
Fig. 1. The structure of teacher knowledge

Building a physics teacher preparation program

The considerations above suggest that in a successful physics teacher preparation program future teachers should learn the content and the methods of the discipline in environments similar to the ones that they will need to create for their students. They also  need to acquire pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). See Figure 1 above. However, if one cannot learn physics by just listening and reading but rather one needs to be engaged in the active process of knowledge construction, the same should apply to acquiring PCK.  That is, one can only acquire PCK by actively constructing it in the process of teaching. Thus clinical practice, an opportunity to engage in interactions with learners, that model good teaching becomes very important for teacher preparation. Hence, we can now define the characteristics of a potentially successful physics teacher preparation program:

1.    Future teachers learn physics through the same methods that they should use when teaching.

2.    They acquire knowledge of how people learn in general and how they learn physics in particular.

3.    They engage in teaching in environments that mirror the environments that we want them to create later.

Two more considerations are important. Teachers prepared today will be teaching for the next 25-30 years. Thus we need to include elements in the teacher preparation program that will give teachers ways of keeping abreast of new technological developments. We also want the teachers to be able to bring the spirit of authentic science into the classroom.

So, we need now expand the characteristics of an exemplary teacher preparation program:

4.    Future physics teachers master technology that they can use in the classroom and acquire methods of updating their knowledge and skills.

5.    Teachers to be learn ways to engage their students in authentic scientific practices.

These five characteristics are the features of the physical science teacher preparation program at Rutgers.

Rutgers has two teacher preparation programs that both result in the same master's degree and a certificate to teach physics and/or physical science. (In the state of New Jersey all certification programs require a major in the subject being taught.) One is a post baccalaureate program and the other is a 5 year program. In the 5 year program students begin taking courses in the school of education in their 4th year of undergraduate studies and then continue in the 5th year. Both are 45-credit programs that can be completed in a minimum of two full academic years. The majority of the students are post baccalaureate.

The distribution of the course work in these programs is as follows:

  • Physical science methods courses where students acquire physics PCK, the knowledge of using technology and how to bring authentic science experiences into learning physics - 18 credits
  • General education courses where students acquire knowledge of learning and learners - 12 credits
  • Clinical practice where students observe teaching and teach physics - 9 credits
  • Graduate level (300-400) physics courses  - 6 credits.

Fine-tuning the preparation of physics teachers

The main threads running through physics-related methods courses and clinical practice are the epistemology of physics, physics reasoning, formative assessment (assessment of student work in the process of learning), and reflection on learning. Although students have (or are finishing) an undergraduate degree in the discipline, they usually learned the subject through traditional lecture-based instruction and not through the methods that they will need to use when they themselves teach.

Thus in all courses pre-service teachers re-learn (or re-examine) physics ideas via the methods that they can later use with their students. For example, future teachers learn how to select phenomena for their students to first observe and later explain. They learn how to perform experiments to test predictions and to see whether the explanation survived empirical testing5. In other words, they engage in scientific investigations and by doing this learn how to engage their future students in similar activities. They participate in a learning process that we want them to model for their students in the future. There is a significant focus on formative assessment and feedback; when a student completes any assignment, she/he receives feedback suggesting improvements and subsequently revises the assignment. In all courses students teach a lesson in class - after the lesson plan has received multiple levels of feedback and undergone multiple revisions. In each class meeting, students reflect on the teaching methods that helped them learn.

The Physics Methods Courses

Below we briefly describe each physics methods course.

Development of Ideas in Physical Science  (1st year, fall semester) - students learn the processes that scientists used to construct concepts and relationships that make up the content of physics courses in a high school.  Students learn to distinguish between experimental work, theoretical explanations and modeling, and testing. They read and discuss original works, replicate classical experiments and learn to adapt them for a high school setting. Students learn about the personalities and lives of famous scientists.  They design and teach a 2-hour lesson that engages high school students in the construction of a particular concept following a historical sequence of events (for example that light can be modeled as a wave).  Again, the students design the lesson, receive feedback, revise it, and only then teach it in class. They enact a story telling piece (as a mini-play) about the life of one of the physicists involved in the development of that idea.

Teaching Physical Science (1st year, spring semester) -- students re-learn and re-examine the physics curriculum through the lens of inquiry-based interactive teaching methods. They participate as students in physics lessons that model high quality instruction and then reflect on their experiences. They investigate different physics curricula and resources - tutorials, interactive demonstrations, workshop physics6, ISLE7 ,etc., master different methods of assessing their students and discuss the difficulties that high school students might have with various concepts8. At home, students write reflective journals reconstructing class experiences9. They design a curriculum unit (for example: Electrostatics) and a lesson that is a part of that unit. They design a unit, attempt it on their own (working in groups), receive feedback from the instructor, revise the unit, rehearse the lesson further and then teach it in class.

Demonstration and Technology in Science Education (1st year, spring semester) - students learn how to use computer interfaces to collect and analyze data, videotape physics experiments, design webpages and use them in the classroom. They learn about available technology-based physics learning software such as ActivPhysics, Webtop, etc. As a final project they make a movie of a physics experiment and embed it into a lesson.

Research Internship in X-ray Astrophysics (Summer after 1st year) -Our teachers-to-be engage in x-ray astrophysics research.  They also observe high school juniors learning physics and astrophysics via the same research methods as well as the methods that the teachers-to-be experienced in the courses described above. (Details of this program, called Rutgers Astrophysics Institute, can be found in reference 10)10.

Student Teaching Internship Seminar (2nd year, fall semester) - This course accompanies student teaching. Students reflect on their teaching experiences, share problems and discuss solutions together.

They design a curriculum unit and lessons, receive feedback and use these materials directly in their student teaching experience. They create a teaching portfolio to use when applying for a job, including their teaching philosophy statement.

Multiple Representations in Physical Science (2nd year spring semester) -Here students reexamine physics though the lens of multiple representations.  They study research articles examining the role of different representations in learning science; they think of how their future pupils will learn to use them for problem solving, they create multiple representations tasks and rubrics for assessment. They design a representations-based lesson, revise it with the instructor, and then teach the lesson in class.

Clinical practice (teaching) is strongly emphasized in the program.  In the fist year students teach recitations and labs in reformed interactive-engagement physics courses.  In the summer they work with high school students in the Rutgers Astrophysics Institute. In the second year they do four months of student teaching, often being placed with prior graduates of the program, who can reinforce what the new student teachers have been learning.

Does the program work?

The first indication that the program is succeeding is an increase in the number of graduating students (1 student in 2003, 5 students in 2004 and 7 in 2005). For a small school of education (we graduate only about 60 elementary school teachers per year), these are very impressive numbers. We think that one of the reasons for the increase is the unique structure of the program which focuses on learning how to teach physical science not all sciences together.

The second indication that the program is succeeding is the transformation of students in the program.  They come to understanding what good teaching is and what a person should know to be a successful physics teacher. Space does not permit a detailed discussion. However, we can say that students' conception of a successful teacher changes from one who is knowledgeable in the content, has good organization skills, and can make physics fun, to a conception of a teacher who can engage students in an inquiry-based exploration of nature, knows how students learn, knows what will facilitate learning of the most difficult, abstract concepts in physics and who is able to plan lessons with all this in mind. When asked about knowledge gained in the program, students consistently list the knowledge of physics and being able to see physics everywhere, the understanding of how scientists construct their own knowledge, and the understanding of how students learn. When asked about skills, students say that they learned how to write a unit plan, plan a lesson and teach a lesson.  They say that they learned how to design a test that probes a students' true understanding of the material and creativity as an experimenter. They often mention that they learned how to engage students in scientific investigations, how to motivate students using challenging problems, how to organize lessons so that new material builds on previously learned knowledge, how to use multiple representations in a classroom, how to organize students in groups, and how to write an exam using non-traditional questions. Although the above might sound impossible to master, the fact that students think they learned these things tells us that they are aware of their importance11.

The third indication that the program is succeeding is the comments of cooperating teachers during student teaching. In interviews they mention the unique preparation of Rutgers interns: their content knowledge, their ability to bring inquiry to the classroom, their ability to use technology in a productive way, their skill at lesson planning and implementing what was planned and, most importantly, their ability to make students active participants in learning. To date, all graduates of the program found jobs and are teaching. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the success of the program is the comment that one graduate made when meeting with a new cohort: "In my first year of being a high school teacher I had more happy days at work than in all ten years of being an engineer".


1. National Research Council, National Science Education Standards.  (National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. 1996).

2. National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century. Before It's Too Late. (National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. 2000).

3.  L. S. Shulman, L. S. "Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform." Harvard Education Review, 57 1-22 (1987).

4.  American Association for the Advancement of Science  Blueprints for Reform; Science, Mathematics and Technology Education: Project 2061. (Oxford University Press, New York 1998).

5. E. Etkina & A. Van Heuvelen, "Investigative Science Learning Environment: Using the processes of science and cognitive strategies to learn physics," Proceedings of the 2001 Physics Education Research Conference. (Rochester, NY, 17-21, 2001).

6.  The Physics Suite. A series of curriculum materials including Interactive Tutorials (M. Wittmann, R. Steinberg, and E. Redish), Interactive Lecture Demonstrations (Sokoloff, D., and Thornton, D.), Real Time Physics (D. Sokoloff, R. Thornton, and P. Laws) and Workshop Physics (P. Laws). (Wiley, Hoboken: NJ. 2004)

7.  A. Van Heuvelen and E. Etkina. Active Learning Guide. (Addison Wesley, San Francisco, CA 2006).

8.  R. Knight. Five easy lessons. (Addison Wesley, San Francisco, CA 2003).

9.  E. Etkina. "Weekly Reports: A two-way feedback tool." Science Education, 84, 594-605 (2000).

10.  E. Etkina, T. Matilsky, and M. Lawrence "What can we learn from pushing to the edge?" Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 40, 958-985 (2003).

11.  E. Etkina "Making a dream teacher". Invited presentation at the AAPT National Meeting, Sacramento, California, August 2004.

Eugenia Etkina is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.



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