Towson University Continues its Physics and Education Partnership to Prepare Future Teachers Effectively

Cody Sandifer, Ronald S. Hermann, and David Vocke, Towson University

Towson physics department

Cody Sandifer (left) and Ron Hermann (center) of the Department of Physics, Astronomy and Geosciences partner with Dave Vocke (right) of the Department of Secondary Education to prepare physics teachers.

At Towson University, there have been frequent, productive interactions between the Department of Physics, Astronomy and Geosciences (PAGS) and the College of Education (COE) for at least fifteen years. These interactions were driven by everyday program logistics, programmatic reforms, and concerns for specific students, all of which helped faculty from both colleges to form professional and personal relationships.

To provide a context for these interactions, it is important to note that Towson University is one of the few academic institutions nationwide to house a significant number of education faculty in its content departments. The PAGS department has twenty faculty, including six science educators: four specializing in elementary education, one specializing in the middle grades, and one specializing in high school. To effectively prepare undergraduate pre-service teachers, PAGS science educators work closely with faculty in various units within the COE: the Departments of Early Childhood Education, Elementary Education, and Secondary Education and the Center for Professional Practice. The director and staff of the Center for Professional Practice (CPP) are responsible for securing school placements for all educational field experiences, such as student teaching.

One hallmark of the collaboration between PAGS faculty and those of the Department of Secondary Education (SCED) is the co-advising of students. Undergraduate pre-service physics teachers are physics majors with a secondary education concentration, and they enroll in numerous education courses. The PAGS secondary education advisor (Ron Hermann) discusses the teaching of physics, physics coursework and related internships and research with his education advisees. The SCED advisors, like David Vocke, ensure that physics teacher candidates fulfill program requirements for attaining teacher licensure. This collaboration has resulted in a collegial relationship between PAGS and SCED.

A critical experience for the future teachers in our program is the capstone student teaching internship, in which interns teach half the semester at a middle school and half the semester at a high school. Working relationships between PAGS and SCED faculty ensure that student teachers receive the support they need during this challenging transition from pre-service to in-service teachers. For instance, PAGS and SCED faculty might discuss specific students prior to their field placements to share areas of strength or concern.

SCED faculty who serve as Professional Development School (PDS) liaisons are responsible for placing student teaching interns with qualified mentors in the local PDSs. However, PAGS is responsible for providing university supervisors for these interns. Secondary specialist Ron Hermann serves as one of these supervisors, observing the interns a minimum of three times at each middle and high school placement. Interns also participate in a student teaching seminar and complete a project that is designed to provide evidence of student learning at their school site based on student learning outcomes (SLO) they develop with their mentor and a supervising SCED faculty member. The seminar is instrumental in assisting interns as they complete their Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (InTASC)-anchored portfolio, a key requirement for graduation. SCED faculty are responsible for assessing the strength of the portfolio and reporting the quantitative scores.

The Teacher Education Executive Board (TEEB) is another body that meets regularly (once per month) to share information across departments. TEEB is a university-level committee that consists of the Dean, Associate Dean and Assistant Dean of the College of Education and one representative from every department on campus that is involved in teacher preparation. As with many formal meetings, TEEB is also a place where informal side discussions and water cooler talk happens between PAGS and SCED faculty.

The relationship between faculty in both departments has carried over to external grant submissions for programs that affect our shared students, and many of these jointly submitted grants have been funded. These programs, such as the PhysTEC, Noyce Scholarship, and UTeach programs, involve senior personnel from both colleges and have helped maintain a true partnership.

An unexpected benefit of this partnership is that tenure-track faculty from PAGS feel comfortable enough with SCED faculty to discuss promotion and tenure issues. When deciding when to submit his promotion and tenure documents to the College of Science and Mathematics, for example, Ron Hermann wanted an “outside” perspective and sought the advice of the SCED department chair. The chair was able to draw upon his extensive knowledge of the evaluation process to provide candid information that helped Dr. Hermann decide when to go up for tenure.

The collaboration between the PAGS and SCED departments has also solved ongoing problems related to Towson’s secondary physics teacher education program. In the past, due to a lack of time and resources in the CPP, new mentor teachers were often not sufficiently oriented to the logistics and goals of student teaching supervision. Due to the positive relationship between the COE and the PAGS, however, PAGS faculty were able to step in to provide paid orientation workshops for new physics mentor teachers, with the funding provided by external grants.

An ongoing issue that still needs to be addressed is that interns tend to be placed in physics classrooms that are traditionally taught, whereas Towson University faculty prefer interns to be placed in classrooms that encourage a greater degree of inquiry and/or active learning. We are optimistic that our strong ties with the SCED department and CPP can provide a collaborative solution to this issue.  Although negotiations in this area are still continuing, PAGS faculty are hopeful that they will participate in the selection of mentor teachers that align philosophically with the pedagogical goals of the secondary education and physics programs.   

In conclusion, we are happy to report that there has been a natural collaboration between the COE and the Fisher College of Science and Mathematics (FCSM) for many years. Faculty in both colleges have worked diligently to prepare the highest quality physics teachers possible by improving secondary education coursework, advising, and student teaching. PAGS faculty could not have implemented these programmatic changes on their own, and necessarily needed the expertise of COE faculty to be successful. In the future, PAGS will continue to provide future teachers the best possible education with our partners in the COE.

Cody Sandifer is a Professor of Science Education and Ronald S. Hermann is an Associate Professor of Science Education in the Department of Physics, Astronomy and Geoscience at Towson University.

David Vocke is a Professor of Education in the Department of Secondary Education at Towson University.

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.