The First Year of PhysTEC at the University of Minnesota

Jon Anderson

The University of Minnesota became one of four new PhysTEC primary institutions in 2007. PhysTEC is a national program of the American Physical Society (APS), the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) and the American Institute of Physics (AIP). It receives funding from NSF and private donors and is designed to increase the number of highly qualified high school physics teachers. The University of Minnesota PhysTEC program involves faculty from the School of Physics and Astronomy (SPA), the Department of Curriculum and Instruction (C&I), and the Department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning (PSTL). The project was initiated in 2007-08 with a focus on the primary goals that are shared with the national PhysTEC project. These goals are:

  • increasing the number of highly-qualified high school physics teachers educated at the U of M.
  • improving the quality of physics teacher training using the results of continuing Physics Education Research (PER) and incorporating the best practices developed at PhysTEC primary institutions and at the U of M.
  • enhancing peer and U of M support for in-service physics teachers and for new teacher induction.

It should be noted that the SPA has a longstanding commitment to improving the training of physics teachers and to improving education in physics based upon the work of the PER group and proven best practices. Additional goals include:

  • providing leadership for the transfer of similar practices and programs to other local and state-wide colleges and universities that have physics teacher training programs.
  • increasing the coordination between the SPA and the departments in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD)
  • continuing to improve our existing physics instruction for pre-service elementary school teachers enrolled in our CEHD.
  • providing support for current and future high school physics teachers in the Twin Cities metropolitan area and the state of Minnesota.

PhysTEC Program at the University of Minnesota

The PhysTEC program at the U of M is based on the experiences of other PhysTEC institutions and adapted to the needs and strengths at the U of M. Members of the PhysTEC team at the U of M have a long history of commitment to improving education. Leon Hsu of PSTL and Ken Heller of SPA have both been awarded the Morse Teaching award, a university-wide award for excellence in teaching. Ken Heller is past president of the AAPT. Cynthia Cattell of SPA, the PI, is the organizer of the outreach group known as "The Physics Force" and a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union. Charles Campbell of SPA is a recipient of the George W. Taylor Award for Distinguished Service. First year TIR Nancy Bresnahan is a member of the "Physics Force" and has received the Minnesota Academic Excellence-Teacher Achievement Award. Current TIR Jon Anderson is also a member of the "Physics Force" and has received the CBS Motivational Teacher Award.

At the heart of the U of M PhysTEC program is the use of Learning Assistants (LAs), a successful component of other PhysTEC sites. The LAs are recruited from the top 10% of the students in the introductory calculus-based physics classes. They are hired to work in Physics 1101, a large, lecture-format, algebra-based physics course. The goal of this placement was to put the LAs in the role of "in lecture peer experts" and to break the large lecture down into more of a studio-style learning environment. The LAs:

  • attend every lecture of the course. They always sit and work with the same group of 16 -18 students. These groups are organized by lab/discussion sections. The professor for the course provides multiple opportunities in each lecture for the LAs to interact with their group of students. These opportunities take the form of in-class "clicker questions", short discussion questions, problem solving exercises, and end of the lecture check out questions. This structure allows for frequent and relevant interactions between the LAs and the students both during and before and after the lecture.
  • maintain an office hour that is open only to students in Physics 1101. This means that the students can seek assistance from a tutor who is knowledgeable in the subject matter and in the specifics of the course.
  • attend either a weekly discussion session or a lab. At these sessions, they assist the TA and help the students in the session or lab.
  • perform almost all of the lecture demonstrations for Physics 1101. This adds an amateur quality and a genuineness to the demonstrations that can’t be achieved in other ways. It also more fully captures the attention of the students in the lecture.
  • collect homework weekly and grade one problem based on a solution provided by the professor.
  • facilitate and conduct review sessions before each of the four scheduled exams.
  • perform scaled down "Physics Force" shows as Physics Force – The Upcoming Generation for school groups and others that are visiting the U of M. This show is approximately 20 minutes in length and is organized around a central theme.

This early experience as an educator has been shown to be a successful strategy for recruitment of undergraduates into the high school physics teaching profession. Therefore, one of the goals of the U of M PhysTEC program is to provide positive, early teaching experiences for our LAs and hope that this entices them to continue and perhaps pursue a career in teaching. To this end, the U of M PhysTEC program is now working with the DirecTrack to Teaching program, a new initiative of CEHD. DirecTrack, designed for exceptional undergraduate students interested in secondary school teaching, allows these students to begin course work towards a teaching license as an undergraduate and provides varied opportunities for early teaching experiences.

Another of the program elements borrowed from other PhysTEC institutions and a key component of the U of M program is a Teacher-in-Residence (TIR). The TIR is a master high school physics teacher who spends an academic year at the U of M and is responsible for overseeing many aspects of the PhysTEC program. The TIR has significant experience using best practice methodologies in a high school setting and, therefore, provides the experience needed to develop an effective program of coursework and early teaching experiences. It is the TIR’s responsibility to:

  • teach one section per semester of Physics 3071: Lab based Physics for
  • Elementary Teachers. The other section of this course is taught each semester by a U of M tenured faculty member. This arrangement lends itself to significant cooperative planning and collaboration between the two instructors and is therefore a mutually beneficial professional development activity.
  • actively recruit students to consider teaching high school physics as a possible career choice. This is accomplished by one-on-one conversations with potentially interested students, making announcements to lecture sections of physics courses, and sending emails inviting and encouraging students to attend information sessions about teaching high school physics.
  • hire and supervise LAs for use as previously described.
  • plan and prepare lecture demonstrations to be performed by LAs.
  • plan and conduct a weekly seminar for LAs that is designed to both prepare them for the upcoming lectures and to introduce them to some pedagogical aspects of teaching physics.
  • act as a mentor to interested students and help coordinate new teacher induction and in-service mentoring.
  • plan and participate in bi-monthly PhysTEC team meetings.
  • participate in information sessions for students that are considering transferring from two-year colleges to the U of M. This is an opportunity to make them aware of the PhysTEC program.

First Year PhysTEC Results

The first year of PhysTEC at the University of Minnesota was largely successful. In its second year, the program continues to evolve with a focus on continued improvement and on accessibility to as many students as possible.

The placement and use of LAs in the lecture proved to be a very successful aspect of the U of M PhysTEC program. The ten LAs that worked in Physics 1101 in the spring 2008 semester brought a pioneering, adventurous, "make it work" attitude to their job. This was demonstrated by the way that they interacted with the students, by the feedback that they gave at the weekly LA seminar, by the way that the LA program (and consequently PhysTEC) evolved in response to the feedback given by the LAs, and by the overwhelmingly positive formal assessments of their value in the lecture.

Perhaps the best measure of the success is that provided by the Physics 1101 students themselves through the end-of-course survey. Two questions best illustrate the impact of LAs in the lecture. The score shown is an average of 116 responses.

  1. "How valuable were the LAs in clarifying points of confusion during lecture?" 3.88/5
  2. "If you were to take the sequel to this course, Physics 1102, would you like to have LAs in the lecture?" 4.32/5

These two questions and the responses to the other questions on the survey provided numerical support for the anecdotal evidence that the LAs had been providing all semester.

Most of the efforts of the U of M PhysTEC program in this first year were directed toward program implementation, hiring LAs, working with the LAs in their role in lecture, and organizing the seminar for the LAs. Additionally, because the program was in its infancy, there was no history of recruitment or related successes to draw upon. In spite of this, the U of M program did succeed in recruiting three future high school teachers. One of them came from the LA corps and is now in the DirecTrack to Teaching program, one of them was a physics major who attended the LA seminars and subsequently made the decision to pursue his post-baccalaureate degree in Physics Education in CEHD. The third individual is someone who worked closely with the PhysTEC program as a graduate student TA for Physics 1101, attended the LA seminars and applied for and received a fellowship that fast-tracked her into a physics teaching position in the St. Paul, MN schools. She will now be working on fulfilling her requirements for her teaching license.


Now in the second year, the PhysTEC program includes 15 LAs working in the Physics 1101 lecture and associated labs and discussions. In upcoming years, the LA program will expand to provide different teaching experiences to second and third year LAs who have decided to pursue a career in high school physics teaching. Additionally, the possibility of expanding the use of LAs into other physics courses is also being explored and discussed. Some of the ongoing goals for the U of M PhysTEC program include:

  • searching for a TIR for the 2009 – 10 academic year
  • working toward making the TIR a funded position
  • continuing recruitment of future physics teachers
  • tracking of PhysTEC teachers
  • recruiting area high school teachers for a Teacher Advisory Group (TAG)

The TAG will be a group of experienced teachers that provide input on the direction of the PhysTEC program and will provide a classroom setting in which future physics teachers can observe and obtain some practical classroom experience.

The program at the U of M continues to be under development. The U of M is well-positioned to have a highly successful PhysTEC Program by virtue of:

  • numerous existing programs that provide a high quality education to pre-service high school physics teachers and elementary science teachers.
  • research in and commitment to the use of best practices in teaching and assessment.
  • a strong base of public programming and outreach to build interest in physics teaching careers.
  • experience with in-service teacher support.
  • the effective and strong interactions between the SPA and C&I faculty and graduate students.

As the flagship public education and research institution in the state of Minnesota, and with its location in the major metropolitan center of the upper Midwest, the U of M is also well-positioned to provide leadership and support for physical science teacher training and in-service support for a large network of educational institutions.


The first year of the PhysTEC program at the University of Minnesota was successful, well received, and smoothly implemented. As the program moves further into this academic year and beyond, it will continue to play to its strengths, solicit and incorporate feedback from the LAs, the students, the TAG and the PhysTEC team. As this feedback is evaluated, the program will continue to evolve in an effort to meet the primary goals of the national PhysTEC program: more physics teachers, better prepared physics teachers, and increased retention of existing physics teachers.

Jon Anderson has been teaching physics since 1986 and is currently the Teacher in Residence for the University of Minnesota’s PhysTEC program. His diverse experience includes university research experiences through both the REX (Research Explorations) and the RET (Research Experiences for Teachers) programs. Through a Fermilab Teacher Fellowship, he spent the 1999 – 2000 academic year on sabbatical leave while working as a researcher at the D0 detector at FNAL. He trained as a QuarkNet Lead Teacher in 2002 and has used that training to conduct annual multi-day workshops for science teachers at the U of M addressing the implementation of particle physics topics into high school science courses.

This article is not peer refereed and represents solely the views of the author and not necessarily the views of APS.