Preparing urban students to teach in the urban classroom: Chicago State University’s PhysTEC Program

Mel S. Sabella and Andrea Gay Van Duzor, Chicago State University

Chicago State University is positioning itself to be a leader in preparing science teachers for the urban instructional environment by incorporating innovative, research-based instructional materials in its courses and by providing intellectual and financial support to students who choose to pursue certification in science. This past year, CSU was one of five institutions to receive funding from the American Physical Society’s PhysTEC Program to recruit students into teaching and provide a model instructional program for students interested in becoming physics teachers. Students chosen as PhysTEC fellows at CSU will have the opportunity to act as Learning Assistants in our introductory physics courses with Physics Education Research (PER) based curricula and engage in an action research project with an inservice high school physics teacher in the Teacher Immersion Institute. The intent of the PhysTEC program at CSU is to recruit more physics students into teaching and to support them in their academic and early professional careers.

CSU has several science education programs that address the critical need to provide high quality science education to the students in our community. The PhysTEC project aligns with and builds on CSU’s existing programs including the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) Science Van Program for the professional development of inservice teachers, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Robert Noyce Scholarship Program for the recruitment and support of preservice science teachers, and the NSF Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) Project for the integration of PER curricula and pedagogy in the introductory physics course sequence. Although these four projects address quality science education from different perspectives, each shares a common set of core resources and tools that foster the creation of a science education community in which the public schools, the university, and the science education research community act as stake holders and collaborators.

Our programs in science education specifically target the students we serve at CSU, many of whom will go back to the communities in which they grew up. CSU is an urban institution serving approximate 7000 undergraduate and graduate students on the South Side of Chicago. Demographically, 85% of the undergraduate students identify as Black, 7% Hispanic, 3% White.1 About 50% of students at CSU have at least once child and most students live within 5 miles of campus and attended high school in the area.2 CSU serves a vital role for the community on the southside of Chicago and the programs in Science Education specifically focus on providing access to high quality science education in the inner city high school. In order to achieve this goal, CSU has implemented several programs with the objective of providing high quality science education through collaboration with high school science teachers, university students preparing to be science teachers, and university faculty. A discussion of how the current science education programs at CSU will align with and enrich the new PhysTEC program at CSU follows.


Inservice Teachers in CSU’s summer 2009 Pedagogical Content Knowledge Course. Approximately twenty teachers participated in the month-long program.

The Science Van Programs in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics provide teachers with two courses in which they can critically reflect on their craft, the Science Van Course and the Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) Course. The Physics Van Course is a two-week summer course in which inservice teachers engage in physics education research driven, inquiry-based activities that they can then take into their own high school classrooms.3 Most activities are accompanied by pre- and post- tests that help teachers elicit students’ initial ideas and gauge improvement after utilizing the Van Activities. While many activities use technology-based tools such as Vernier and Pasco Probeware, other activities use low-tech equipment such as bricks and floor tile. Because many schools in the Chicago Public School (CPS) System did not have the specific tools needed to support these activities, sets of equipment were purchased through the IBHE grant funds. This equipment is then lent to the participating schools so that they are able to conduct the activities with their students at their schools. A retired physics teacher from CPS, who is currently funded by CPS, delivers equipment to the schools and may assist the teacher with the activity if requested, although the teacher always leads the class. The newly developed Physics PCK Course is an intensive four-week summer course in which teachers actively reflect on the intersection between physics concepts and pedagogical practices in the classroom.

The Physics Van, the Chemistry Van, and the Biology Van program has been serving CPS teachers and students for many years and has allowed the Science Education Programs at CSU to build strong professional relationships with many teachers in Chicago. This network of educators, with a wealth of collective and individual experience, has and continues to play an essential role in CSU’s evolving preservice teacher programs. The collective knowledge and experience of the practicing teachers with whom we work plays three major roles in our education programs. Namely, the teachers provide guidance in the development of our programs, serve as mentors to our preservice teachers during observation hours and student teaching, and provide induction year support for our students.


Sean Gallardo presents his research in Physics Education at the 2010 AAPT conference in Washington DC. Sean is preparing to be a high school physics teacher and was part of CSU’s first cohort of Noyce Scholars. In addition to presenting at two national AAPT conferences, Sean has also presented his work at the 2010 Gordon Research Conference on Physics Research and Education.

Students at Chicago State can pursue certification in science as undergraduates enrolled in our secondary education options in the different science disciplines. Students who already have bachelor degrees in related fields can pursue initial certification through the Master of Arts in Teaching Degree or through a certification only program. CSU’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program and our new PhysTEC Program were developed to serve the specific needs of the preservice teacher. Both these programs provide intellectual and financial support to students during their academic and early professional careers to help recruit and retain teacher candidates.

Central to the recruitment of students into science teaching at a school like CSU, is a focus on the professional nature of teaching. The purpose of this focus is twofold: it serves to change student perceptions about teaching and it prepares students to become teachers who value continued professional development and value the science education research literature. African American non-education majors can view teaching as a career that is underpaid and undervalued and often believe that teaching is only viable for students with altruistic tendencies seeking intrinsic rewards.4 The Noyce and PhysTEC programs at CSU place the professional nature of teaching front and center by involving students in education research projects and paid internships at Chicago area museums, such as the Museum of Science and Industry and the Adler Planetarium. Students regularly attend local and national conferences on science and physics education as well as the Noyce Seminar Series on Science Education at CSU. Furthermore, they are enrolled in a weekly journal reading class to discuss science education and science education research papers. Through PhysTEC funding we are implementing two new components to the teacher education program at CSU that build and reinforce this idea of professionalism in science teaching and also emphasize the challenging nature of teaching.

Because the teacher education program at CSU is small, it is important to incorporate specific program components that are sustainable, can build capacity, and can draw students who may not have initially considered teaching. The CSU PhysTEC project is creating two components designed to address the specific needs of the smaller teacher preparation program. These two components are the collaborations between CSU and two-year colleges in the area and the development of a Teacher Immersion Institute (TII).


Students at CSU engage in PER-based activities in the introductory physics course. The revisions to the introductory physics courses at CSU are a result of three National Science Foundation Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement Grants that focus on the needs of students at the urban institution.

Because the population of students who choose to enter the CSU secondary science teacher education program is small, CSU will work closely with the two-year colleges in the area that already have strong collaborative relationships with the Physics Program at CSU. CSU has been working with the physics faculty at Harold Washington College (HWC) and Olive Harvey College (OHC), two of the City Colleges of Chicago on implementing research-based instructional materials in the introductory courses. Each of these schools shares a common vision on modern instructional approaches and is committed to providing the best possible learning environment for its students. HWC and OHC have pilot tested a number of Physics Education Research (PER) based lessons designed to actively engage students in the scientific process and promote scientific dialogue through inquiry-based activities as a result of a multi-year CCLI project. By working closely with our two-year college partners we are able to broaden the pool of potential preservice teachers and further strengthen the links between the two-year colleges and CSU. Like CSU students, the students at the two-year colleges will be invited to apply to be PhysTEC Fellows (PTFs). As PTF’s, students will act as Learning Assistants (LAs) in the introductory physics courses at the two-year colleges to help them make an informed decision about whether teaching is right for them.5

CSU students who are accepted as PTF’s will act as LAs in the CSU introductory physics course sequence and the physics course for preservice elementary teachers. CSU PTF’s will also be part of the new Teacher Immersion Institute (TII). The TII will be a two credit course taught by two of the practicing teachers with whom we regularly work with in our Science Van Program or PCK courses. The TII is designed to provide an early teaching experience for students with an interest in possibly entering this field. CSU Level 1 PTFs will enroll in the TII as part of their semester activities. In the TII, the teachers will lead the PTFs in a semester long action research project with support from CSU science education faculty. In an action research project, teachers reflect about their instruction, implement new strategies to improve teaching and learning, and assess the effectiveness of the new strategies through analysis of student work, with the ultimate goal of improving practice through this iterative process. Often, action research is done as a collaborative effort between colleagues at a particular school.6 The TII action research project will provide opportunities for our preservice teachers to assess student understanding of a specific topic, design a lesson that is guided by research, implement the activity with high school students, and assess the effectiveness of the activity. PTFs will be expected to work with the teachers on all aspects of the project establishing a mentor-student relationship that we hope will last well beyond the semester. By creating and supporting these relationships as part of PhyTEC, we anticipate creating long term support structures for our preservice teachers that will aid them during the difficult induction years. Encouraging new teachers to become a part of discourse communities centered on modern pedagogies and reflective teaching can provide support for teachers who take positions in schools with possibly negative or limiting educational philosophies.7 The creation of the TII will further strengthen the professional relationship and collaboration between the teachers in CPS and CSU. Teachers will have an opportunity during the TII to work on a project in which they are interested with support from students and faculty at CSU as well as earn tuition exemption vouchers to further their own professional development. When the instructional materials are implemented by the teacher in their classrooms, the PTFs will act as Learning Assistants in the high school classroom, providing an early teaching experience grounded in thoughtful reflection about student learning.

The TII will also play an important role in recruitment. Because of the caliber of practicing teachers with whom we work and due to the careful development of science activities and practical applications in the classroom, we expect that this will be a very exciting piece of our PhysTEC Program. Practicing teachers who are leading the TII’s will begin to be an integral part of the teacher education program at CSU, and we hope that this will allow our cooperating teachers to feel an increased level of ownership in the teacher education program at CSU. Teachers who participate will learn more about the diverse programs for preservice teachers at CSU as well as CSU’s efforts at reforming undergraduate science education. They will hopefully promote the diverse CSU science programs to their own students. Teachers have always been one of CSU’s most profitable avenues for recruitment but they need to be given access to correct, current information about the school and the opportunities at CSU in science. We expect that this collaboration will increase the number of students entering CSU as freshman in both the science teacher-education major options or the options that lead to industry careers and graduate programs.

Although teachers do not command the same salaries as doctors and engineers, it is important that our preservice teachers begin to see that teaching is as challenging as these fields and should be given the same respect. At CSU, science teaching is consistently promoted as a professional career that requires continued intellectual engagement and professional development and that provides opportunities for advancement. We believe that the synergy between our inservice programs, such as the Science Van, and our undergraduate programs that support teacher candidates such as the Noyce Scholar and PhysTEC programs and the implementation of PER curricula in the introductory physics courses will enable the science education program to continue to grow and help promote the professional nature of teaching. Aspects of the CSU approach to science education and teacher development may prove fruitful for other urban universities with relatively small science education programs. More information on CSU’s programs in science education can be found at:


1. Illinois Board of Higher Education. (2007). Institutional profile: Chicago State University. Retrieved April 4, 2008, from
2. CSU Office of Institutional Research and Academic Evaluation. (2007). CSU student demographics. Chicago.
3. Sabella, M. (2007). Providing support to inner-city students and teachers through the physics van inservice institute. The Physics Teacher, 45(2), 80-84.
4. Shipp, V. H. (1999). Factors influencing the career choices of African American collegians: Implications for minority teacher recruitment. The Journal of Negro Education, 68(3), 343-351.
5. For more information on the LA Program see
6. Etkina, E., et al. (2009). Using action research to improve learning and formative assessment to conduct research. Phys. Rev. Special Topics – Phys. Ed. Research., 5 (010109)
7. Putnam, RT and Borko, H (2000). What do new views of knowledge and thinking have to say about research on teacher learning? Educational researcher. (29) 1 4-15.

Mel Sabella is an associate professor of physics at CSU whose research focuses on improving STEM education for underrepresented students.

Andrea Gay Van Duzor is an assistant professor of chemistry at CSU whose research and programmatic interests focus on fostering connections between chemical theory and practice for students and teachers.

Sabella and Van Duzor draw upon diverse but complimentary backgrounds to lead the CSU PhysTEC Project.

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.