Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Spring 2006 Newsletter



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A New Model Alternative Certification Program For HS Physics Teachers

Dan MacIsaac, Department of Physics, The State University of New York (SUNY)-Buffalo State College,
222 Science Bldg, 1300 Elmwood Ave, Buffalo NY 14222.  E-mail:
Joe Zawicki, Department of Earth Science and Science Education, SUNY-Buffalo State College
Kathleen Falconer, Department of Elementary Education and Reading, SUNY-Buffalo State College
David Henry, Department of Elementary Education and Reading, SUNY-Buffalo State College
Dewayne Beery, Department of Physics, SUNY-Buffalo State College.

Please direct correspondence regarding this manuscript to the first author.  Portions of this manuscript were published as MacIsaac, Zawicki, Henry, Beery & Falconer (2004).  J. Phys Tchr Ed Online, 2(2), Nov2004, 10-16, <>.

We describe the development and deployment of a model graduate level alternative certification program for physics teachers at SUNY- Buffalo State College.  The Masters of Science Education (Physics with NYSED Transitional B Certification) program accommodates science and engineering professionals with appropriate bachelors degrees who wish to change career paths into physics teaching.  The alternative certification program is distinctive in that candidates minimize their income disruption and bypass student teaching through an intensive full time Spring-Summer introductory component leading to NYSED Transitional B Certification, followed by paid, mentored teaching employment and evening coursework for two calendar years.  This alternative certification program is made possible through intensive physics teachers' summer academy courses, supplemented by regular semester evening course and online offerings.   Courses are shared with a second new program - the Masters of Science Education (Physics), which serves already certified science teachers (usually in subjects other than physics) who wish to obtain a master's degree for permanent teacher certification and usually teacher certification in a second discipline -- physics.

Alternative Teacher Certification

Alternative certification refers to a teacher certification program that differs from standard college programs of teacher preparation, usually by avoiding the extended guided field experience of student teaching.  Alternative certification is frequently insufficiently discriminated with emergency certification, which usually refers to a complete waiver of any teacher preparation to obtain a teacher who is otherwise unavailable.  Other certification routes intermediate to these exist, particularly individual (transcript) evaluation in NY.

Although problematic, alternative certification programs can be done well, and can provide a viable pathway to physics teacher preparation.  Alternative certification program candidates bring uniquely attractive backgrounds and interests to address needs for under-represented teachers sought by schools.  Alternative certification programs can address needs not adequately met by traditional programs. 

Overview of the Two Buffalo State College M.S.Ed. (Physics) Programs

The M.S.Ed. (Physics) programs are summarized in Figure 2.  Admissions require either current NYSED secondary science certification (the right hand side of Figure 2), or for alternative certification (the left hand side of Figure 2), a bachelor's degree meeting NYSED language and content requirements for physics certification, and successful completion of the NYSED state teacher competency examinations (LAST and the Physics Content Subject Test) required for physics teacher certification.  Certified participants do not have to take any additional education courses or workshops, unlike alternative certification candidates who must take an early field experience and some education courses before they can be awarded the Transitional B certification and can accept classroom employment. 

Alternative certification candidates typically complete their initial employment requirements through full-time enrollment in the spring semester, followed by an intensive summer academy, then teach the following school year under Transitional B certification under both SUNY- Buffalo State College Physics mentorship and an intense LEA induction program. Alternative certification candidates can be in the classroom employed as full-time transitionally licensed teachers after as little as two semesters of full time student study (one spring and one summer semester), and we have had several candidates succeed with this arrangement.

During the regular academic year, M.S.Ed. (Physics) candidates also take some combination of evening and distance education courses. Although coursework for the alternative certification program can be completed in the following summer academy, the NYSED Transitional B certification agreement requires a minimum of one full year of intensively mentored teaching experience for regular teacher licensure. 

M.S.Ed. (Physics) program candidates who are already NYSED certified in another subject can add physics certification and complete their program in about four semesters if they enroll in two successive summer academies together with the regular fall and spring semester evening and web courses.  Each summer, 18 credits of summer academy courses are offered for teachers (including six credits for K-8 teachers), with a minimum of 6 credits of evening classes (9 cr. this academic year) between regular Fall and Spring semesters.  We have also placed some few of these offerings online as appropriate (E.g. PHY500 and PHY690) and we are creating online support materials (and local tutorials) for NYSED Physics CST exam preparation.   This greatly extends statewide reach for our coalition and meets teacher demands.  We accept transfer credit and some of our downstate candidates have taken some of the online course offerings for graduate credit in physics from the NTEN/NSTA and University of Virginia programs in particular (NTEN, 2004; University of Virginia, 2004).

Figure 2:  The M.S.Ed.-- Physics programs at SUNY- Buffalo State College.

The graduate physics courses for these programs include a mixture of undergraduate physics content and graduate level physics pedagogical content knowledge (physics and science education research PER and SER findings, and science teaching methods), presented at an undergraduate mathematical level.  Physics content is largely shaped by research findings and state requirements, and frequently departs from traditional physics course curricula - for instance there is essentially no treatment of thermodynamics, while there is a significant treatment of modern physics dictated by the state via PER-informed curricula. 

The two 600-level summer academy courses are particularly intensive fifteen day workshops modeled after the nationally renowned Modeling Physics workshops held at Arizona State University - in each course approximately thirty participants work through PER-informed curricular activities in both student and teacher roles.  Besides Hestenes' distinguished and well-researched Modeling Physics curriculum, activities from the AAPT's Powerful Ideas in Physical Science (PIPS) and Goldberg's Constructing Physics Understanding (CPU) curricula also inform these workshops (Wells, Hestenes & Swackhamer, 1995; Hestenes, 1987, 1993; Modeling Physics Group, 2004; AAPT, 2004; Goldberg 2000).  PHY510 is a locally developed workshop course originally intended to support new teachers who were assigned to teach physics without physics certification, and focuses on meeting NYSED requirements through activities NY master physics teachers have selected on an ad-hoc basis, leavened with formal PER and SER touchstone activities. 

Finally, though not accepted for M.S.Ed. - Physics program core credit, the summer academy includes at least one offering for K-8 teachers of physics, usually PHY507, a course dedicated to the appropriate NYSED standards incorporating the above curricula plus Goldberg's Physics for Elementary Teachers (Goldberg, 2004) curriculum activities, and frequently incorporating a PER or SER component by blocking it with a second graduate course in science curriculum research for K-8 teachers, EDU671.

The other two notably unique courses are PHY500 --an online seminar of PER readings and findings, and PHY690 -- a terminal masters' project producing a manuscript contributing to the physics teaching community, most of which are web-published, but some 40% of which have been published in peer reviewed practitioners literature for physics teachers.  This last course is particularly challenging for instructor and candidates, but very rewarding.  These last two, together with several topical courses, are offered during the Fall and Spring semesters.

Lessons Learned

There has been considerable demand for our M.S.Ed. (Physics) programs.  We have stabilized our program size at approximately forty candidates by restricting acceptances to only the best qualified and most likely applicants.  Since the programs were inaugurated in fall and summer 2002, eleven candidates have graduated, with four more to graduate shortly.  About two thirds of our candidates are certified working teachers who are seeking either certification to physics and/or a permanent license, with a small few candidates who don't require physics certification or a masters' degree for permanent certification who are simply improving their physics teaching skills.  The remaining third of the candidates are alternative certification students.  The Physics Teachers' Summer Academy acts as a recruiter for the M.S.Ed. (Physics) programs, attracting between ninety and seventy teachers each summer to the SUNY- Buffalo State College campus, with another twenty-five to fifty teachers attending the monthly Saturday morning alliance meetings of the Western New York Physics Teachers' Alliance (WNYPTA, 2003) supplementing the recruiting pool and candidate support network.

The non-certification M.S.Ed. (Physics) candidates are mostly (65%) HS science and math teachers seeking certification in physics, with some (30%) already holding initial physics certification and a small number (5%) of elementary and middle school teachers (usually those with minors in physics) seeking secondary physics certification.  Second subject certification for science teachers via a discipline-specific masters degree intended for teachers is growing common and greatly improves employment flexibility for NY science teachers.  A very few certified candidates have no NYSED need for another masters' degree and simply want to improve their physics teaching; we tend to attract these candidates to satisfy their NYSED graduate physics content credit requirements or to attend physics alliance meetings, and they sometimes stay for the reformed teaching and student-centered pedagogy. Although we have only two minority candidates to date, we have almost 20% women and we are trying to recruit both populations.  We are particularly pleased to have candidates who are working teachers in urban, high-needs school settings, including several building new physics programs at their schools.  We hope to have these candidates support future recruiting of undergraduate student and graduate student physics and physics education candidates from amongst their own students and colleagues. 

The remaining third of our M.S.Ed. (Physics) candidates and graduates (sixteen) are career-switching technical professionals; of these all save three (77%) hold bachelors' degrees in various fields of engineering.  Most are young men who have practiced engineering for several years and are seeking more rewarding careers with greater employment stability.  The other three include two alternative certification (AC) candidates with a B.S. in physics and a Ph.D. physicist switching careers to teaching. Our AC candidates are usually altruistic and reflective about their reasons for career change (we are not admitting simple economic refugees), and some have worked as substitute teachers, which is something we strongly encourage. Our AC candidates are almost universally looking to move directly into the classroom as quickly as possible, want to minimize their time in university classrooms and want to minimize the financial disruptions due to full time student enrollment. One exception to this is still working as an engineer and taking one program course per semester. They are frequently particularly hostile to education coursework, which can be problematic. Like many traditionally prepared teacher candidates, they also resent the unpaid-while-paying-tuition nature of traditional student teaching. 

Alternative certification programs incorporating physics content for these individuals are quite rare, though these candidates could readily locate other certification programs without physics content such as an M.Ed. or M.S.Ed. (Science) or a post-baccalaureate non-degree program in general science teaching, and we don't believe we are cannibalizing such programs.  Only one AC candidate holds a Buffalo State Physics department undergraduate degree. We have seen that our alternative certification candidates present unique issues in physics teacher education; our candidates sometimes hold inappropriately optimistic estimations of their subject expertise and strong, under-informed and inappropriate preconceptions of good teaching practices.  A reflective exposure to SER and PER instruments and literature, and explicit instruction via student-centered constructivist reformed teaching methods helps most of them address these issues, though three have simply left our program, partially due to a lack of interest and willingness to change these views, which has been noted in the AC literature (Koballa, Glynn, Upson & Coleman, 2005) .  Abd-El-Khalick (2003) has referred this as the expert-novice-expert problem; AC candidates need to recognize that their expertise in one area doesn't map onto a new subject area before they can progress in their development as teachers.  Traditional undergraduate teachers in preparation move through a novice-expert development cycle (often holding naive images of good teaching), and experienced teachers from other science disciplines may need to move through a different kind of expert-novice-expert developmental sequence with regard to acquiring new pedagogical skills in inquiry-based, student-centered, constructivist (reformed) teaching (MacIsaac, Sawada & Falconer, 2001; MacIsaac & Falconer, 2002).

Because the AC candidates require monthly observation visits from a faculty member for a year and incumbent travel time, the program is currently limited to a small number of AC candidates (we are hiring local master physics teachers to help supervise), and we no longer advertise the AC program except by word of mouth and posters at state science conferences.  We do advertise the non-certification program in yearly mailings to physics departments and high schools statewide.  We currently have three out-of-state candidates, and a few (less than 5%) out-of-state Summer Academy registrants every summer.

These forty-odd candidates represent maximum capacity for a program dedicating approximately 1.0-1.5 FTE year round faculty without research release (three graduate courses each semester year round).  To staff these programs at SUNY-BSC, one new full-time faculty member was hired and is supported by another from physics, and faculty from two other departments to teach these course offerings.  In particular, the summer academy courses require additional instructional personnel, both BSC faculty and master physics teachers, making the programs extremely faculty time intensive.  Despite receiving NSF supplementary funding (for candidate scholarships and support), the M.S.Ed. (Physics) program courses alone are run on a cost-recovery basis; BSC makes money on the summer academy courses in particular (six graduate credits of in-state tuition cost approximately $1800).  Summer academy courses routinely fill to capacity and students are turned away.  SUNY- Buffalo State College is historically a teacher preparation institution, famed for preparing high-quality teachers, and successfully competes with over a dozen regional teacher preparation institutions. BSC has no other graduate programs in physics, due to the close proximity of SUNY University at Buffalo which has a complete offering of physics graduate programs and is the Western New York regional flagship institute for physics research.  As a result of the success in these endeavors, the M.S.Ed. (Physics) programs and associated activity (the Summer Physics Teachers' Academy and the Western New York Physics Teachers' Alliance) are viewed with considerable institutional pride, and we consider these as institutionalized.


The preparation of this manuscript was supported by the National Science Foundation (DUE 0302097), Buffalo State College and the Center for Excellence in Urban and Rural Education (CEURE).  Dr. Tom O'Brien and the M.S.Ed. (Physics) program candidates contributed comments and insights.


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