PhysTEC at Cornell: A Progress Report

Robert E. Thorne

As the readers of these pages know well, the US has a severe shortage of high school physics teachers. The statistics are grim. Only one-third of high school students take high school physics. Only one-third of those who teach high school physics have a degree in physics or physics education. Teacher shortages are especially severe in urban and rural districts. Fifty-five percent of New York City schools, representing 23% of enrollment, do not offer physics.

Access to quality physics education is critical to our economic competitiveness and national security. Careers for which physics is a prerequisite – in the physical sciences, engineering and medicine, among many others – have historically provided an upward path for the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Equality of access to physics education is thus an issue of social justice. We cannot achieve our goals of greater socioeconomic, racial and gender diversity in STEM disciplines if our children do not emerge from high school with physics training and – even more important – with sufficient confidence and enthusiasm to pursue further physics study in college.

How did we get here? The factors are complex, but the historical division of labor between US colleges and universities seems critical. Most teacher training occurs in second and third tier institutions, which tend to have relatively unselective admissions. High school students that are good in math and physics generally have good overall test scores, and are much more likely to end up at first tier institutions. But at these institutions, teacher training programs and high school teaching careers often have little visibility, and little cache with their undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty.

Again, the statistics are telling. In New York State in 2006, the top ten institutions for physics teacher production generated 52% of all certifications but only 16% of physics majors. The top ten institutions for physics majors graduated 61% of all majors but certified less than 4% of the physics teachers.

Major research universities like Cornell with large undergraduate enrollments in STEM disciplines must accept significant responsibility for the current crisis. We attract a disproportionate fraction of the physics-capable students, but produce very few physics teachers. In fact, most research universities are not even physics teacher neutral: they train and certify fewer teachers each year than are required (given attrition rates from the profession) to ensure that the students who enroll in their introductory physics courses each year have had high school physics.

As a PhysTEC primary program institution since 2007, Cornell has significant potential as a source of future physics teachers. Roughly 1300 undergraduates per class take an introductory physics sequence, and several hundred graduate students work in physics and engineering-related areas. Our introductory physics courses provide excellent and diverse models of effective physics instruction, including state of the art lecture-based courses that have featured electronic in-class polling since 1971 and cooperative learning sessions and transferable-skill-focused weekly laboratories since the early 1990s, and mastery-based self-paced courses with online, video and podcast tutorials, self-guided lecture demonstrations and one-on-one instruction.

So what have we been doing to capitalize on this potential? To a large extent, we have followed the excellent rubric provided by PhysTEC, and have drawn heavily upon approaches and materials developed by past and present primary program institutions. Here I will focus on three components of our program: recruiting, early field experience and the physics teacher-in-residence.


Why do so few undergraduates at Cornell and its peer institutions pursue certification in physics teaching? High tuition, student loans and family expectations bias them toward careers that pay well. Professors, graduate teaching assistants and the institutional ethos bias them toward careers at the cutting edge of science and technology (even though most will not end up there) and to teaching careers at the university level. Institutional divisions isolate STEM undergraduates from Education departments and certification programs. The media convinces them that high school teaching careers are hard, poorly paid and not respected, a stereotype that their inadequately prepared high school physics teacher may have done little to dispel. The few students with serious interest in high school physics teaching often feel isolated, and receive little support from their peers or professors.

How can we convince more of our students to become high school teachers? Here are some principles and tactics.

Know your target audience. Surveys are an excellent way both to gauge attitudes and to stimulate interest. Each year we deploy a STEM Careers Interest Survey to all students enrolled in introductory physics courses. This survey asks students to think broadly about the factors relevant to choosing a career and about the kinds of careers they would like in their working life; it invites them to examine teaching careers; and it educates them about teacher education programs and available financial aid.
Give them the facts. In talks to undergraduates and on our PhysTEC website, we examine more than dozen career choice factors and how high school physics teaching careers stack up. By most metrics, the answer is: very well.
Change the culture. We make regular presentations on the PhysTEC project to physics faculty and graduate students, reminding them why training more physics teachers is critical to our institution, profession, and country; inviting them to help in promoting teaching careers and in identifying and recruiting students with teaching interests; and pointing them to useful advising resources.
Grease the path. Most STEM majors know little about courses and programs relevant to teacher training. We use in-class announcements and emails to advertise teacher certification information sessions and Noyce fellowship opportunities to all students enrolled in introductory physics classes. Revised online and print materials for physics majors and graduate students place the Physics Department’s stamp of approval on high school teaching careers, and give detailed suggestions for programs of study leading to teacher certification.
Cast a broad net. Over 90% of those who enroll in introductory physics do not intend to be physics or applied physics majors, but many would have excellent careers as high school teachers. Many of those who enter Master of Engineering programs would gain entrance to more meaningful careers by earning a Master of Arts in Teaching instead. Roughly 1/4 to 1/3 of those who enter Ph.D. programs in the physical sciences and engineering do not complete them, and this pool has yielded roughly half of the physics teachers Cornell has produced. Recruiting efforts should target all of these students. We are developing collaborations with advising and career services staff in Engineering and Biology so as to better inform and capture their students.

Early Field Experience

Figure 1: Undergraduate Teaching Assistants (UGAs) work with students in an introductory lecture.
Figure 1: Undergraduate Teaching Assistants (UGAs) work with students in an introductory lecture.
A centerpiece of the PhysTEC rubric is to engage students with the intellectual and practical challenges of teaching as early in their undergraduate careers as possible. In Spring 2008 we established an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant (UTA) program, drawing heavily on the program and materials developed at the University of Colorado by Valerie Otero. In our version, UTAs partner with graduate student TAs in facilitating cooperative problem solving sessions in our non-honors introductory courses. UTAs are an integral part of the instructional team, and attend weekly course meetings with faculty and TAs. UTAs also enroll in and receive credit for a weekly 1 -1/2 hour seminar “Teaching and Learning Physics”, which is taught/facilitated by our Physics Teacher in Residence. All undergraduates who have taken an introductory physics course are invited to apply to the UTA program, regardless of their intended major. We also solicit applications from students who are nominated by faculty, TAs and UTAs based upon their communication and teamwork skills as demonstrated in recitation and lab. An interest in a teaching career is the other important selection criterion. Students who wish to continue as a UTA for a second semester must enroll in an Education course.

The benefits of the UTA program both in generating interest in teaching careers and to our undergraduate physics program as a whole have become clear. For our third semester of the program we received 72 applications for 12 new positions, and all offers were accepted. Six students from the second semester enrolled in Education courses and have continued in the program, including one who has transferred from Engineering to Physics and is seeking certification. UTAs are enthusiastic about the experience and its impact on both their learning and teaching of physics. Undergraduates in the courses they serve appreciate the extra attention and the UTA’s often superior teaching skills. The program provides excellent PR for the Physics Department, especially to students from outside the department who enroll in our introductory courses. It helps build team spirit among those inside and outside physics who have interests in teaching, and gives them a way to identify themselves within the university.

How effective is our UTA program in helping to produce certified physics teachers? It is too early to tell. We do know that many Cornell science and engineering undergraduates express interest in teaching careers, and are anxious to gain teaching experience for the credentials and the growth it can provide them. But we also know that undergraduate interests evolve, especially in an environment that provides so many research and project team opportunities. We need to cast a broad net and then provide sustained encouragement and opportunities to maximize our teacher output.

Figure 2: Cornell TIR Marty Alderman
Figure 2: Cornell TIR Marty Alderman
Teacher in Residence

The Physics Teacher in Residence plays a critical role in mentoring UTAs, in sustaining their enthusiasm for teaching, as an authority on high school physics teaching careers, and as a role model. In a research-focused environment where faculty are chronically overcommitted and rarely available, the TIR also handles most of the day-to-day operation of the PhysTEC program, and serves as its public face to our undergraduate and graduate students.

We have been blessed with two outstanding Physics Teachers in Residence – Marty Alderman for 2007-2009 and Jim Overhiser (President-Elect of the Science Teachers Association of New York State) for 2009-2010. Both Marty and Jim have long been active in supporting teacher preparation and professional development.


Figure 3: Cornell TIR Jim Overhiser
Figure 3: Cornell TIR Jim Overhiser
Research universities must play a major role in addressing the national shortage of high school physics teachers. Many of our faculty engage in K-12 outreach activities. But the training of undergraduates to become educators is closer to our core mission and competencies, and few activities can match the impact of placing a highly qualified teacher in the classroom. By embracing high school physics teaching as a career option for our students, by bringing in talented high school teachers to serve as mentors and role models, and by partnering with our colleagues in Education, we can strengthen our undergraduate programs and help produce the teachers and educational leaders of tomorrow.

For more information and to access materials that we have used in our program, please visit

Robert Thorne is Professorof Physics at Cornell University, and co-directs Cornell's PhysTEC project. His research interests include low dimensional electronic materials, physics problems in structural genomics, recovery of ancient inscriptions using X-ray methods, and biomass combustion. He has receivedthree awards for innovation in introductory physics instruction for non-majors.

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