Private Funding for Physics Teacher Preparation at James Madison University

Mark Mattson

Early in the summer of 2007, the Department of Physics and Astronomy at James Madison University (JMU) received $255,365 from the Toyota USA Foundation to fund the University’s efforts in the development and training of physics and physical science teachers in the state of Virginia in general and in the Shenandoah Valley region in particular. The money is being used over a 3-year span to endow a faculty-level position for a physics teacher-in-residence (TIR) as well as a summer/fall program that mirrors the efforts of the Physics Teaching Resource Agents (PTRA)[1]. As of this writing, the program has fully completed the activities scheduled for the first year, is well into the second year, and is already planning for the third and final year for which these funds are available. Efforts to seek funding for additional years are being planned. Despite initial hopes that the University would permanently provide for the TIR position, the current state of the economy dictates that an external source will have to provide those funds.

The ideas behind the grant proposal arose from ideas already well established in the physics education community. The usefulness of a physics TIR has been established by the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC)[2]. Programs at Western Michigan University, the University of Arkansas and other institutions have documented success in the recruitment and training of pre-service teachers in their implementation of this idea. The other aspect of the grant proposal incorporates a weeklong summer workshop each year with follow-ups in the fall for in-service teachers that mirrors the successful PTRA program. As with the TIR program, there was documented success in what the PTRA program has done, but this time it was in terms of generating renewed enthusiasm among in-service teachers as well as providing them with workable techniques from the results of the latest research in physics pedagogy.

Despite some concerns over some of the issues of using funds from a non-government entity [3], it was decided early on in the process of developing the proposal to seek funds from a private source rather than a state or federal source. This choice was made as private foundations tend to have more flexibility in what they are willing to fund; government requests for proposals tend to have more specific targets. It was thought that a government-funded source such as the Math-Science Partnership[4] would be good for one aspect of the entire proposal, but a single funding source for all aspects of the project was preferable.

With the choice made that a private foundation would be solicited, it was vital to find foundations that were most likely to be receptive to the ideas being submitted. There are many corporate foundations and many of them include the funding of education-related endeavors in the mission; however, not all of them feature STEM education as part of their mission. For example, the GE Foundation[5] has education of minorities as a primary target. The foundation should have a history of issuing awards of the desired size and for projects in the desired geographical region. For example, the Bayer USA Foundation will consider funding worthy proposals in the field of STEM education but will tend to award applications only from states in which the company has a presence [6]. With these considerations, it was found that the Toyota USA Foundation had all the qualifications needed [7]. Their mission statement says that the company is “committed to improving education by supporting programs that offer the tools and training to help enrich people’s lives” and they fund “K-12 educational programs that focus on the areas of math and science.” In addition, in 2005 they awarded $200,000 to Virginia Tech [8]. The author notes with both pride and acknowledgement to luck that the Toyota USA Foundation was both the first and the last organization to which this particular grant proposal was submitted.

The ideas behind the proposal and the selection of the potential funding source were, comparatively speaking, the easy parts. The devil, as usual, took up residence in the details. Given the relatively recent upsurge in publicity associated with the need to promote STEM education, there was a receptive climate for the ideas. However, without a noteworthy commitment from different elements within the University, the odds of successfully being funded would be small. One of the significant attractions in the proposal was that there would be a noticeable increase in communication and cooperation between the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the College of Education with the expectation that this would be, more or less, a permanent institutional change. As envisioned in the proposal and as subsequently implemented, the physics TIR would be involved in the pedagogical methods course taught in the College of Education and would also play a major role in the practicum course for pre-service STEM teachers. These duties were in addition to the stated responsibility of the physics TIR to teach an introductory course in the Physics Department and otherwise participate as a faculty member within it. As a demonstration of this commitment, the proposal included letters of support from the Head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, the Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, and the Associate Dean of the College of Education. Additional letters of support were submitted by the University’s Vice Provost of Outreach and Engagement and Theodore (Ted) Hodapp, one of the PI’s for the PhyTEC program. These letters addressed issues related to internal support of the proposal as well as viability at JMU. The letters did not address any commitment by the University to fund any of these programs on a permanent basis after the three-year period. The letters showed that the powers-that-be from different parts of the University genuinely viewed this proposal as a significant means of enhancing the University’s mission.

Upon receipt of the funds, an interesting dilemma arose. The money was received early in the summer of 2007, too late to set up a weeklong summer institute for 2007 and probably too late to hire a TIR. Teachers tend to know their plans for the upcoming academic year no later than the preceding March. It was, therefore, too late to recruit any in-service teachers to be TIR. However, the Department of Physics and Astronomy has had a relationship with a number of local physics teachers for many years as they are often employed part-time to help out with introductory physics labs. One of these teachers, James (Jim) Butt, had recently retired. Jim met all of the necessary qualifications to be the TIR; he had a Master’s degree and had spent 10 years teaching high school physics at a nearby school. Jim had even attended JMU’s PTRA rural institute earlier this decade. Perhaps somewhat charitably, Jim agreed to be JMU’s first physics TIR.

Jim was assigned a section of the introductory, calculus-based University Physics course; however, his section was held in one of the rooms for introductory labs. With the help of the departmental equipment manager, Art Fovargue, this enabled Jim to more readily utilize laboratory and demonstration materials to give students a more hands-on experience. Jim also followed some of the approaches detailed in “The Active Learning Guide” by Alan Van Heuvelen and Eugenia Etkina. Jim found it a very interesting and invigorating experience—while he had used active learning techniques in his classes, he had never fully committed to them to such an extent. Jim assessed the effectiveness of this approach using the Force Concept Inventory (FCI). His section showed an average Hake gain of 0.29. While this gain is low for a typical active learning-based class, it nevertheless represented a significant improvement over the average Hake gain for students in a typical lecture course. Jim still teaches part-time and has said that he plans on using active learning techniques more aggressively in his courses.

The short turn-around between receiving the grant, confirming Jim’s hiring, and the start of the 2007 fall semester made it impossible for Jim to play a role in the practicum course the College of Education requires of those seeking certification. Instead, Jim worked with David Slykhuis of the Department of Middle, Secondary, and Mathematics Education in co-teaching the pedagogical methods course taken by STEM education majors. This gave students within the course a valuable opportunity to have extensive interactions with a teacher who’s been “in the trenches” and also demonstrated the commitment to developing greater communication between the different departments and colleges. In the following semester, when there was adequate time to do the necessary arrangement of schedules, Jim was placed in a position where he could help out with the practicum course. This also exposed the physics teachers in the region to this program at JMU, increasing the likelihood of finding qualified people to serve as TIR’s in future years.

During the current 2008-09 academic year, the physics TIR at JMU is Thomas O’Neill. He is on an approved year-long leave of absence from the Shenandoah Valley Regional Governor’s School. Thomas has a history of using active learning techniques and has applied them to his section of University Physics; when he administered the FCI, the average Hake gain for his class was 0.46. Thomas has also continued working with David Slykhuis in both the pedagogical methods course and the students’ practicum. As of this writing, efforts are currently underway to secure a TIR for the 2009-10 academic year with the hope that the task will be accomplished by March 2009.

The PTRA-like workshops were instituted in the summer of 2008. William (Bill) Ingham of the JMU Physics Department ran one of the inaugural rural institutes for the PTRA from 2002 through 2005. This established a helpful baseline for the program funded by the Toyota USA Foundation. Master teachers Deborah Roudebush and John Roeder, who had worked with Bill under the aegis of PTRA, were willing to work again under this program. Recruiting teachers to participate in the workshop and handling administrative details such as room and board were handled through a partnership with one of the flagship programs run by the College of Education at JMU, the Content Teaching Academy (CTA)[9]. The CTA is essentially an umbrella organization that provides learning experiences for teachers from across the state. The CTA is run as a concurrent set of week-long workshops during the summer that cater to many of the different disciplines such as math education, elementary education, and special education. Since money was coming from the Toyota USA Foundation, the administrators of the CTA were willing to incorporate a physics-related workshop into their administration. This includes the afore-mentioned matters of recruitment and room and board but the equally important matter of documenting the teachers’ participation and ensuring it counts towards their recertification. Having the CTA orchestrate the recruitment also resulted in a somewhat different dynamic for the population of participants. The CTA has a good reputation among teachers and administrators in public school districts across the state and is, therefore, able to attract more teachers from the middle-school level. About 20% of the teachers who came to the workshop were from middle schools, which contrasts with less than 10% when JMU was hosting the PTRA rural institute a few years earlier. Unlike the typical workshops held by the CTA, all the teachers were invited to follow-up workshops held on two different Saturdays during the subsequent fall. These workshops, following the PTRA architecture, allow the participants to get together and reflect on the successes and difficulties of incorporating the techniques they learned during the summer workshop. As an inducement to attend, the teachers were each given $10/hour as well as expenses to cover their mileage.

A survey of teachers who participated in the summer workshop was generally very favorable. Nearly all of the teachers indicated interest in attending the workshops in 2009 and 2010. The 2008 summer workshop focused on Galilean and Newtonian physics, while the 2009 and 2010 workshops are expected to focus on electromagnetism and thermodynamics, respectively.

The Toyota USA Foundation-funded program at JMU to improve the preparation and qualifications of physics and physical science teachers has, to date, met the goals outlined in the original proposal. Ongoing assessments continue to inform handling of the TIR and pseudo-PTRA programs and will be used to justify the need for future funding. While it is irrelevant whether subsequent funding is from private sources or government sources, there is the hope that the existence of this program will stimulate professionals from other institutions to consider alternative sources to support STEM education and teacher preparation.

Mark Mattson ( is an Assistant Professor of Physics at James Madison University as well as the Physics Coordinator of the University's Science and Mathematics Learning Center. He received his PhD from Virginia Tech in the field of experimental elementary particle physics. He is currently working on STEM education-related projects.

[1] Physics Teaching Resource Agents Program (PTRA),
[2] Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PTEC),
[3] Washburn, Jennifer, “Science's Worst Enemy: Corporate Funding”, Discover Magazine, published online Oct. 11, 2007,
[4] Math Science Partnership (MSP)
[5] General Electric Foundation
[6] Bayer USA Foundation
[7] Toyota USA Foundation
[8] Broughton, Sandy, “Toyota grant will fund new technologies in state classrooms”, Spectrum,
[9] Content Teaching Academy

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 APS.