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Steven J. Maier, Chair, Department of Natural Science, and Professor of Physics, Northwestern Oklahoma State University
Jenny Sattler, Assistant Professor of Physical Science, Northwestern Oklahoma State University
Who knew that in a rural state where entire counties are devoid of high school physics, an initiative for Physics Education would sprout from fertile ground? Such is the story of Northwestern Oklahoma State University’s (NWOSU) physics education program. In hindsight, the development began in 2008 with a simple, state-level data request. Rubber hit the road in 2011, and real tangible programmatic change began in 2014—coinciding nicely with our PhysTEC Recruitment Grant.
The backstory and motivation for this change involves exploratory research findings from the State Department of Education beginning in 2008. Data were collected on how many annual statewide certification attempts there were in high school physics teaching, the number of active high school physics teachers in Oklahoma, and the number of high schools offering physics regularly. We found that the trends from state reported data were bleak and inconsistent with national trends; each is in steady decline in Oklahoma.
NWOSU’s total enrollment is around 2,200 students, whom are heavily recruited from surrounding counties in the tristate area. At NWOSU, the Department of Natural Science houses biology, chemistry, and physics programs. Until recently, academic majors and minors were only possible in biology and chemistry. Further, although our science education program was accredited, it was only possible to obtain certification to teach high school biology.
To transition the story from one of commiserating to one of action, we will now continue by explaining how we initiated change in a small way, directed at something we knew we could impact: K-12 in-service teacher support. We began hosting AAPT/PTRA summer institutes in 2011 (www.nwosu.edu/ToPPS), funded by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. At first, the Teachers of Physics and Physical Science (ToPPS) institute only provided professional development in physics. However, subsequent institutes evolved to establish a network of teachers and eventually to become a means of encouraging repeat attendees to earn their certification to teach high school physics.
In 2013-2014, a fortuitous sequence of events occurred: Teacher education program accreditation responsibilities required a reassessment of our biology teacher certification program. Through the process, it became clear just how straightforward it could be to add separate physics and chemistry education programs to the catalog without much extra draw on university resources. After polling other institutions for feedback and details of their programs, it was apparent there were faculty members at other Oklahoma institutions who were interested in collaborating on a physics teacher education program to help cope with low enrollments. In addition, NWOSU announced the opening of a new tenure-track faculty position in physical science.
In surprisingly short order, these separate pieces dovetailed into a joint PhysTEC Recruiting Grant proposal. NWOSU took the lead as author, with collaborators from East Central University, Oklahoma State University, and Southwestern Oklahoma State University. As a collaborative, we have a healthy knowledge base and can share our extensive experience with successful programs that promote physics education (such as ECU’s Oklahoma State Science & Engineering Fair, NWOSU’s ToPPS, OSU’s OSUTeach, SWOSU’s STEM camps, to name a few).Since becoming a PhysTEC supported site in 2014, three key benchmarks were achieved to serve as a foundation for physics education at NWOSU:
With a new tenure-track physical science faculty member on staff at NWOSU, a door was opened to reinstate the physics minor. Our newest faculty member is qualified to offer upper-level physics and bio-physics courses that pre-health students may take as electives. By cross-listing a selection of these new courses, we fulfilled a need for multiple programs in our department. Because the new physics minor’s elective hours now permit medical physics coursework, we hope these course offerings will make a minor in physics an attractive option for traditional biology, chemistry, and mathematics majors.
One way to make the physics minor and physics teacher education degree more accessible to students who are changing majors was to create a path that made use of the algebra-based sequence that was already completed by them. To this end, we developed the bridging course, PHYS 2011. If a student completes the algebra-based physics sequence followed by this single credit-hour bridging course, then that student will not have to complete the calculus-based physics sequence for the physics minor or the physics teacher certification program.
Within the current structure of accredited teacher education programs at NWOSU, required core discipline courses is commensurate with an academic minor. We capitalized on this by re-envisioning the physics minor as a means for creating a physics teacher certification pathway. With the continued success of the ToPPS program and the alignment with NWOSU’s mission, our administration supported the proposal for adding physical science teacher certification programs in chemistry and physics. We can now say we are addressing the physics teacher shortage at both ends: in-service professional development and a new pre-service program.
In short, the resources from PhysTEC have been tremendously helpful in our efforts. While progress had already been made beforehand on a different but related front, the PhysTEC Recruitment Grant served as a catalyst for greater change. With PhysTEC leadership, we developed a physics education program and have proceeded with a Learning Assistant program this fall. With their financial support, we are now positioned to actively recruit physics education candidates statewide and feel we are a part of a supportive community.
Steven Maier is a full time physics faculty member at NWOSU and is currently the chair of the Department of Natural Science. He is the director of NWOSU’s Science Education Programs, serving as a member of the Teacher Education Faculty.
Jenny Sattler is a biomedical physicist who joined NWOSU as a full time physics faculty member in 2014. She has taken active roles in program modifications to make the physics minor more applicable and accessible to science majors of other disciplines.