Collaboration fosters physics teacher preparation at Boston University

Andrew Duffy (Department of Physics) and Peter Garik (School of Education), Boston University

For the past ten years, the Department of Physics and the School of Education at Boston University have worked together developing programs for pre-service and in-service physics teacher development. This shared interest in physics teacher preparation dates back to the inception of the No Child Left Behind legislation and the adoption of a Physics First curriculum by the Boston Public Schools (BPS) in 2004. The number of “highly qualified” physics teachers was not nearly enough to satisfy the required BPS classroom demand. To address this problem, two physicists (Andrew Duffy in the Department of Physics and Peter Garik in the School of Education) designed the Improving the Teaching of Physics (ITOP) sequence of courses to serve as professional development (PD) for teachers who had to teach outside their content field and wanted to earn licensure in physics.

This shared interest in physics teacher PD led to membership by the Department of Physics in the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC), and the adoption and adaptation of PhysTEC supported programs at Boston University (BU). The outcome has been a collaborative effort by the two units at BU on physics teacher recruitment, preparation, and professional development. What was initially a collaboration between Physics and Education has now led to productive collaborations with other science programs at BU, including Biology, Chemistry, Engineering, and Neuroscience. These interlocking efforts include:
  • Improving the Teaching of Physics (Project ITOP).
    The initial collaborative effort has continued ( The ITOP program consists of ten two-credit graduate-level courses that combine physics, the conceptual history of physics, and readings from the Physics Education Research (PER) literature. Originally designed for teachers who did not have a strong background in physics, the courses have attracted teachers with a variety of backgrounds, and are also taken by Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT) students. Well over 100 teachers from all over Massachusetts have taken at least one ITOP class. A key component of the program is that for part-time students, the courses are offered at a special tuition rate affordable for in-service teachers.
    • Learning Assistants: The Learning Assistant (LA) program was first adopted at BU after faculty members attended a PhysTEC sponsored workshop at the University of Colorado-Boulder. First adopted by the Department of Chemistry, the Departments of Biology and Physics also initiated LA programs the following semester. Since then, there have been over 200 LAs who have taken the LA pedagogy course offered by the School of Education (SED), and worked in science and engineering courses. A motivation for SED to support the LA program was the prospect of science and engineering majors discovering that they enjoyed teaching, and then choosing to earn teacher licensure. Although the conversion rate has been small, it is nevertheless meaningful. This year two Physics LAs applied for a Noyce Scholarship, and a former LA is in the Physics MAT Program. Most importantly, the LA Program has enhanced physics instruction, as well as instruction in other science departments. A collateral effect has been the initiation of a field placement in local schools for science and engineering students interested in a high school teaching experience.
The engagement by Boston University’s science departments and SED in the LA Program led to BU’s hosting the first Northeast Regional Learning Assistant Workshop (NERLAW) in March, 2014.
  • Comprehensive PhysTEC (Physics Teacher Education Coalition) grant: The objective of PhysTEC grants is the transformation of a Department of Physics into one supportive of the preparation of physics teachers and supportive of the use of research-based methods for physics instruction. At BU, the grant has funded a Physics Teacher in Residence (TIR) with an appointment in the Physics Department for the past three years. Through commitments by the Department of Physics, the School of Education, and the Provost’s Office, the TIR position will continue for the next three years. The TIR supports the undergraduate education program, but principally works to recruit interested physics students (undergraduate and graduate) into a career in teaching. At BU, this has included encouraging LAs to continue their development as teachers; advising physics graduate students who are interested in teaching; advocating for new physics programs to better prepare future teachers; and providing new Noyce Scholar physics teachers with mentoring support during their induction years. Another component of the TIR’s work is interaction with in-service physics teachers. At BU, the TIR has organized a Physics Teacher Network (PTN) with regular meetings of Greater Boston physics teachers to discuss teaching and learning in their classrooms. These meetings attract potential ITOP participants, as well as ITOP alums and career changers interested in becoming physics teachers. Some of the ITOP teachers subsequently act as mentors for our Physics MAT students, and some of the career changers enroll in our MAT Program.
  • Noyce Scholarship Program in Science: A capstone to the joint efforts by the Department of Physics and the School of Education is the preparation of physics teachers to work in high need districts where good physics instruction is very much needed. The Boston University Noyce Urban Science Scholarship (Project BoNUSS) program allows us to provide scholarship incentive for BU physics students we recruit for teaching, as well as financial support for external applicants to our program. Project BoNUSS has led to changes in the program offered by SED, such as an emphasis on providing equitable science education for diverse populations, and helped BU achieve a significant increase in the number of physics teacher graduates. Prior to the programs above, on average the number of physics teachers prepared at BU was less than one per year. This year we graduated three Noyce Scholars as physics teachers, two of whom were recruited from BU; our 2015 cohort of physics teachers includes four Noyce Scholars and two non-Noyce MATs of which three were recruited from within BU, and one who came because of Project ITOP.

From the initial Project ITOP collaboration between the Department of Physics and SED, an interlocking system of programs has developed that has transformed physics education (and science education more generally) at Boston University. The programs have depended on the investment of efforts by personnel from multiple departments. We are grateful for the time, effort, and advice received from Manher Jariwala, Bennett Goldberg (BU’s Director of STEM Education Initiatives), Mark Greenman (TIR 2012 – present), and Juliet Jenkins (TIR 2011-12) in Physics; Kathryn Spilios in Biology; Binyomin Abrams, Natalya Bassina, Dan Dill, Nic Hammond, and Adam Moser in Chemistry; and Donald DeRosa, Nicholas Gross, and Meredith Knight in Education. We are also grateful for the advice and support from PhysTEC, without whose stimulus most of our programs would not have developed.

Andrew Duffy is a Master Lecturer in Physics, is currently teaching algebra-based introductory physics in a studio classroom, and has a longstanding interest in applying new technologies to teaching and learning.

Peter Garik, Clinical Associate Professor in the School of Education, is a physicist (Cornell, 1981) who has worked in science education for the past 25 years. He is an instructor for the LA pedagogy course and PI for the Boston University Noyce Scholar Science Program.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.