Physics Learning Communities, Teacher Scientist Alliances, and Local Physics Alliances: Professional Development whose Time has Come Again

Jacob Clark Blickenstaff, Teacher Education Programs Manager, APS

Typically, high school physics teachers are the only physics teachers on a high school campus, and may even be the only teachers of physical science, making the position very isolated. Though there may be a calculus teacher on campus, and perhaps another science teacher with some physics background, usually there is no one else around who teaches physics very often. Professional conversations about the teaching and learning of physics can be invigorating and sustaining when the day-to-day chores of taking attendance, grading homework, and checking lab equipment have taken their toll. In recent decades a number of efforts have been initiated across the country to try to link high school physics teachers with physicists in their region to engage in thoughtful conversations about content and pedagogy. A few examples include:
  • In the 1990s, the APS ran the Teacher Scientist Alliance (TSA) program, which focused on elementary and middle school science teachers, and was aimed at linking physicists with classroom teachers.

  • An archived version of the PTEC digital library site at Buffalo State recalls the Local Physics Alliances (or LPAs) which supported the Modeling initiative at ASU.

  • The most recent trend has been the creation of Professional (or Physics) Learning Communities(PLCs) as a part of grant-funded reform efforts.

  • Maintaining a cooperative relationship between university faculty and high school teachers requires significant commitment of time and energy, so the lifetime of these collaborations is often quite short.

As the Teacher Education Programs Manager for APS, I am working on what the next iteration of teacher professional development by APS will look like. I sent a very informal survey to the FEd list serve in November 2011, asking members to send me a note describing their efforts working with high school physics teachers. A number of the responses described projects along the lines of PLC, TSAI, or LPAs. I learned about some efforts that have been ongoing for many years (see the Syracuse group below), others that are built around large funded projects (see QuarkNet), and others that came into existence in response to a district-level mandate (see California Lutheran). Finally, the American Chemical Society is in the second year of at two-year pilot program that supports the formation of chemist/teacher teams which I will describe more fully below.

Syracuse-Central NY Physics Alliance

This group has been active since the early 1990s, and is still a going concern. Built around Saturday morning meetings held five times a year in the Syracuse University Physics Department, a community of high school physics teachers in central New York state gather to address issues of interest to the teachers. With the support of the local APS section, the department, and private funds, these sessions have served fifteen to thirty teachers at a time. While many of the sessions focus on make-and-take projects to add to the high school teachers’ classroom apparatus, general pedagogy and summer professional development opportunities are also important topics. The group has even branched out into public outreach by setting up demonstrations in a local shopping mall. Two teachers who began their relationship with Syracuse through the Physics Alliance have gone on to participate in summer research at CERN.


Two respondents to the email survey described QuarkNet as the driving force behind their efforts with high school teachers. The Quark Net project is a federally funded program that partners high school teachers and students with scientists working on experiments at facilities like Fermilab and CERN. Teachers gain experience as researchers on cutting edge physics projects, and are then able to connect this work to their classroom teaching. Perhaps just as important, QuarkNet teachers are part of a collection of 52 centers at universities and labs across the county where physicists and teachers develop supportive peer-group communities.

California Lutheran University

In contrast to a very large project like QuarkNet, some powerful interactions are happening on a small scale led by committed individuals. Bob Rumer, an instructor of physics at California Lutheran University, has been meeting with 7 high school physics teachers on a regular basis for the last 18 months. The teachers were initially brought together by a school district mandate and Bob was invited to join them. This meeting has evolved into a continuing discussion of physics teaching directed by the interests of the high school teachers. Bob has provided examples of lab experiments he does at the college level and teachers have seen the value of the group interactions even though they do not necessarily have the same equipment at their home institution. It is Bob belief that a key part of the success of this effort is that he follows the teachers’ lead. Although the initial impetus for a meeting is external, the direction the group takes is decided by the teachers, not by an external mandate. Bob also noted that many of the teachers were unaware of national organizations like AAPT and APS and the free resources that both organizations provide. The physics department at California Lutheran has provided copies of Randall Knight’s Five Easy Lessons to all the participants, which has guided a number of the group discussions.

American Chemical Society

Though the situation in chemistry is a bit different, the ACS has begun to address chemistry teacher professional development in a similar way. The 2011-12 school year is the second year of a two-year pilot program called ACS Science Coaches. Chemists in academia or industry, graduate students, and retired faculty are recruited to pair with middle or high school teachers to work on a project of the teacher’s choosing. The teacher is given $500 to cover materials expenses related to the project. Teams are required to meet monthly and to communicate by email or telephone at least once per month, and a summative report is due at the end of the year. Approximately 150 pairs have participated over the two years of the pilot program, though the second cohort is in the middle of their projects as of this writing. Most teams have spent their funds on new laboratory equipment. The coach has participated in classroom activities with many partner teachers, but the project is entirely at the discretion of the team. At least one teacher asked the coach to assist in reorganizing the chemical store room and purchased up-to-date storage equipment with the funding.

Common thread: Teacher-directed

It is perhaps not surprising that the efforts that have remained in place for a significant period of time give science teachers real autonomy to decide what to explore and how to improve their own practice. Most physics teachers want to get better at what they do, and that is particularly challenging when working in isolation. Programs that bring teachers together with physics faculty can make a real difference in the content knowledge and teaching practice in high schools, but probably most effectively when the teacher decides what he or she wants to learn.

Jacob Clark Blickenstaff comes to the American Physical Society from a background as a high school physics teacher, teacher educator, and physics education faculty member. He works on the PhysTEC project as well as teacher professional development for APS.

NOTE from the Newsletter Editor – there are a large number of physics teacher ‘Alliances’ of various types operating around the country, many very informal and loosely connected with organizations such as AAPT or APS. We would welcome items about such Alliances and their successes in future editions of the Newsletter.

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.