The Boston University PhysTEC Program

Andrew Duffy


Boston University has been awarded a three-year PhysTEC grant (2011-2014) to support efforts aimed at increasing the number of licensed physics teachers we graduate. We also have internal funding, with equal shares from the School of Education, the Department of Physics, and the Office of the Provost, to sustain the project for an additional three years (2014 – 2017). Project team members are Andrew Duffy (PI), Bennett Goldberg, and Manher Jariwala, all from the Department of Physics; Peter Garik (co-PI), from the School of Education; and this year's physics teacher-in-residence, Juliet Jenkins.


While PhysTEC has been operating for several years, Boston University (BU) is the first PhysTEC-funded site in New England, so one of the goals of the BU program is to serve as a model program for the New England region, helping raise awareness about the PhysTEC program, and providing guidance and ideas for recruiting and training of new physics teachers.

Boston University has been active in physics education projects for a number of years. Some of our projects that helped lay the foundation for our PhysTEC effort include:
  1. Project ITOP (Improving the Teaching Of Physics) – since 2004, we have been teaching 10 two-credit graduate-level courses for in-service teachers who are teaching physics. The program is led by Peter Garik, of the School of Education, and Andrew Duffy, of the Department of Physics, and the course instructors at present are Manher Jariwala, of the Department of Physics, and Nicholas Gross, of the Department of Astronomy. For the first six years of the program, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education provided funding, and Arthur Eisenkraft of the University of Massachusetts Boston was a key collaborator. The ITOP courses range from the first course, on Newton's laws of motion, to courses dealing with quantum physics, special relativity, and computer modeling of physics phenomena. The courses are designed so that teachers who are teaching physics without having a solid background can gain a deeper understanding of physics. We have attracted many such teachers to the program, several of whom have gone on to pass the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL) in Physics. The courses have also attracted teachers who have an excellent physics background, and those teachers also report that the courses are valuable. In addition to the physics content, all the ITOP courses include a significant amount of content drawn from the conceptual history of physics (CHOP) and the Physics Education Research (PER) literature, so the teachers are being challenged on many levels.

  2. Inquiring Minds: Immersion in Science – this project, funded by the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education STEM Initiative, the Stephen D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation and Schlumberger-Doll Research, is another example of the close collaboration that exists between the Department of Physics and the School of Education at Boston University. Bennett Goldberg, of the Department of Physics, and Glenn Stevens, of the Department of Mathematics, are the PIs of the program. Peter Garik and Don DeRosa, of the School of Education, largely developed the pedagogical approach and assessment model, and have been instructors along with Andrew Duffy and Manher Jariwala. Inquiring Minds brings elementary and middle-school teachers to campus for two weeks in the summer for an immersive experience in science. In recent summers, these teachers have either been in our Immersion in Green Energy course, or our Immersion in Global Energy Distribution course, which examines factors related to climate change. In both courses, the teachers work in teams on an in-depth project, either aimed at investigating a type of alternative energy or a factor connected to climate change. The intent is to give them a hands-on experience in doing science, so that they are better able to bring the practices of science into their own classrooms.

  3. Boston Urban Scholars GK-12 program – our NSF-funded GK-12 effort (now transitioning to internal funding and self-support) is led by Bennett Goldberg of the Department of Physics. This program has had two rounds of NSF funding, allowing us to establish a close partnership with the Boston Public School system, and, every year, to partner science and engineering graduate students with local high school science teachers. Generally, the graduate students spend 10 hours per week at the school, with many of these hours spent in the classroom working closely with the teacher and the students.

Project Activities

BU's PhysTEC program refocuses our efforts on pre-service teachers rather than on in-service teachers. Over the past several years, Boston University has graduated one or two physics teachers per year, either from the School of Education's Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program (a one-year program that students come to BU to do after, generally, completing an undergraduate degree in physics), or from the four-year School of Education undergraduate program. 1-2 physics teachers per year is not atypical for an institution our size (18000 undergraduates), but an important goal of the project is to increase this number, to help address the national shortage of highly qualified physics teachers in the classroom.

One effective way to encourage more students to become teachers is to give students early teaching experiences with low barriers to becoming involved. We have a new Learning Assistant (LA) program at Boston University, modeled on the LA program at the University of Colorado, and funded by the Office of the Provost, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the departments using LA's. These LA's are undergraduate students who recently took the course themselves, and who are now working alongside graduate teaching assistants (TA's) to help their fellow undergraduates learn the material. The students in the course generally find the LA to be somewhat more approachable than the professors or even the TA's, and having an LA in a discussion section that would otherwise have a single TA for up to 30 students has a significant impact. It is hard for one person to address all of the student issues and questions, but having a team with a TA and an LA working together makes for an improved learning environment.

The Learning Assistants take a two-credit pedagogy course during their first semester as an LA, allowing the LA's to read various papers on different approaches to teaching; encouraging them to reflect on their own teaching experiences; and giving them a venue where they can exchange ideas with their fellow LA's. In addition to the LA course, the School of Education has created a new two-credit course designed to give interested students a first teaching experience in a local high school classroom. The idea is that some of the LA's will get hooked on teaching through their LA experience, and will then go on to take this second course to see if teaching is something they really want to do.

Currently, the departments with LA's are Chemistry, which initiated the LA program at BU in the spring semester of 2011, Biology, and Physics. The latter two started a LA program in the fall semester of 2011. Each of these departments currently has between 12 and18 LA's per semester, either working in the lab sections (Biology) or in the discussion sections (Chemistry and Physics).

The Role of the Teacher-in-Residence (TIR)

The teacher-in-residence (TIR) is a key individual in all PhysTEC projects. Our first TIR, Juliet Jenkins, has been actively recruiting among the undergraduate physics students, making students aware that there is a national need for more physics teachers, and trying to tap into the joy of teaching that some of these students have, but which we have not tried to develop in the past. Ms. Jenkins has visited several different physics classes to talk about various ways in which students can have a teaching experience (such as becoming an LA, or doing tutoring through BU's tutoring center, or getting involved with BU's Wizards after-school program, which takes science demonstrations and activities to local schools). She has been working very closely with the members of Photon (BU's Society of Physics Students chapter), talking to them about teaching as a career and helping them to think about activities aimed at building teaching skills. Ms. Jenkins has also been working closely with Peter Garik on the PhysTEC activities that are centered in the School of Education, including both the LA pedagogy course and, especially, on the new course that includes classroom observations in local schools.

Ms. Jenkins presented a poster at the Fall 2011 conference of the New England sections of the APS and AAPT, held at UMass Amherst, describing PhysTEC, and providing details on the BU program, especially the role of the TIR. This is helping to spread awareness about PhysTEC in the region.

Another thrust of BU's program is to have our own faculty members reflect more on their own teaching, and to encourage them to value physics teaching as a profession, so they consider that to be a viable career option for our physics majors. To this end, Ms. Jenkins has been actively engaging in discussions with various members of the department, talking about teaching, or about LA's, and she was also instrumental in the organization of our first ever Physics Teaching Lunch, a lunchtime gathering in November, 2011, during which faculty members came together to discuss a particular aspect of our teaching. In our case, the first meeting focused on the pre-class quizzes we have introduced into our introductory physics classes, both to encourage students to come to class prepared, and to free up class time so that we can spend more time on interactive activities such as in-class quizzes and clicker questions.

Finally, we are also working to build a community of local physics teachers, hosting a few meetings every year during which teachers come in to give us advice on our PhysTEC efforts, and giving them an opportunity to share ideas and demonstrations related to what they are doing in their own classrooms. Ms. Jenkins was the main organizer of our first such meeting, in November 2011, which was attended by 15 area teachers and featured a great exchange of ideas among the group. We have had over 100 teachers take at least one of our ITOP courses for teachers over the past several years, and ITOP alumni represented the bulk of the attendees, but we were also pleased to see a few new faces, too.


We are developing several different projects consistent with the PhysTEC project and in support of the primary goal of increasing the number of licensed physics teachers who graduate from Boston University. Some of these efforts are aimed directly at undergraduates, such as the Learning Assistant program, while others are aimed at members of the physics faculty or at fostering collaboration between the university and local physics teachers. These efforts represent a significant commitment on the part of BU, both in terms of financial resources and in time committed by the project team, and we are highly appreciative of the PhysTEC support, which provides funding for a physics teacher-in-residence on campus. Our first TIR, Juliet Jenkins, has enthusiastically embraced her role, and is providing a lot of positive energy that is driving the project forward.

Learning Assistant, Max Porter, working with a group of introductory physics students in a discussion section.

Learning Assistant, Max Porter, working with a group of introductory physics students in a discussion section.

Andrew Duffy has been teaching introductory physics at Boston University since 1996. He is particularly interested in applying new technologies to teaching and learning, and is currently developing iPhone and iPad apps for physics.

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.