The PhysTEC Program at Virginia Tech

John Simonetti, Department of Physics, Virginia Tech

The Physics Teacher Education Program (PhysTEC) is now in its second year here at Virginia Tech. PhysTEC, as you may know, is a project led by the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers, with the aims of improving the education of future high school physics teachers and physical science teachers, and increasing the number of credentialed physics teachers drawn specifically from the ranks of college and university physics majors. Secondary goals include the improvement of undergraduate physics teaching by incorporating modern research-based methods of instruction and improving the general atmosphere surrounding the educational mission with physics departments. To advance this last goal, PhysTEC also aims to raise the level of regard among physics faculty for teaching physics as a career option for undergraduate physics majors. As you should be aware, the nation suffers from a severe lack of highly qualified physics teachers at the secondary level. With the dramatic scientific and technological issues facing our nation and the world, the future health of our civilization depends upon the quality of education, and particularly science education, at the pre-college level.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University is a land grant university, founded in 1872. It is a research university with eight colleges and a graduate school, with approximately 29,000 full-time students on campus (about 24,000 undergraduates). The university is most well-known for its College of Engineering. Virginia Tech is located in southwestern Virginia, about a 4 hour drive from Washington, D.C., and the heavily populated northern Virginia area; many of our students come from northern Virginia. The university is located in the New River Valley, a rural area between the Blue Ridge and Alleghany Mountains. Blacksburg, the surrounding town, is very much a college town. 

The Physics Department has approximately 200 majors. In addition to educating the majors, the department teaches a two-semester calculus-based introductory physics sequence to all engineering students — a total of about 2000 per semester. A non-calculus introductory sequence is also presented to approximately 900 life-sciences majors per semester. Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs), taken from the ranks of our physics graduate students, run laboratory and recitation sections for these introductory sequences. 

PhysTEC at Virginia Tech has many features common to other PhysTEC sites, but also some unique innovations. Like most PhysTEC sites, we have a Teacher in Residence (TIR) and a Learning Assistant (LA) program. In our program, we collaborate closely with the School of Education, use a SCALE-UP approach to teach introductory physics to our physics majors, not a traditional lecture, have some unusual pre-service teaching experiences for our PhysTEC students, and offer our PhysTEC students a Graduate Teaching Assistantship to cover their expenses while completing their Masters of Education at Virginia Tech. 

Our current TIR is Alma Robinson. She has been with us since the beginning of the program. While it is unusual for the TIR to serve for more than one year at a PhysTEC site, there was a change in PhysTEC leadership at our site and the PhysTEC administration thought it best to allow our TIR to continue for another year, adding some additional continuity to the program. Alma has been an integral part of the success of our program because of her boundless energy and her enthusiasm for the program and for education in general. She graduated from our undergraduate physics program and completed a Masters in Education here at Virginia Tech before we became a PhysTEC site. After teaching physics at a high school in northern Virginia for a number years, she became our first TIR. Alma has a thorough knowledge of the Virginia Tech program, knows the faculty involved, and the specific academic programs here for physics majors and graduate education students. She also has a preexisting connection with high school physics teachers in the area through her experience here as a student teacher. In addition, she was a GTA in our department as a graduate education student, and had the job of working with teachers in the area to schedule outreach visits to those schools by our physics majors outreach team (more on this program later). The potential lesson for other PhysTEC sites: while it is often useful to have new blood in a program, don’t shy away from using a TIR that was a successful graduate of your program, either as a physics major, or education student, or both. Such a person can be quite an asset.

This year we started an undergraduate Physics Learning Assistant program, with the intent of interesting more students in teaching, improving the delivery of physics instruction to both physics majors and engineering students, and assisting the LAs in their own understanding of physics (as faculty know — and as we tell all our students — you only really learn physics when you teach it). We were already on track to use undergraduates as Learning Assistants before our selection as a PhysTEC site. LAs are similar to GTAs, but are undergraduate students (who may be paid, or may receive academic credit for their LA work). Before we became a PhysTEC site, we used some undergraduate physics majors as teaching assistants in the labs associated with introductory astronomy. These students were high-level physics majors, interested in teaching, who had a background in astronomy or had taken the introductory course and labs earlier. Our newly initiated Physics LA Program has 12 participants, who serve as LAs in introductory astronomy lab sections, introductory physics lab sections, introductory physics lectures for engineers, and the SCALE-UP introductory physics section for freshman physics majors. All LAs must take our new Physics Teaching and Learning course, taught by the TIR. The LAs take this course concurrently with their first semester as an LA. They receive credit for taking the course, and as is common within the College of Science, our undergraduate LAs receive academic credit for their work as an LA. We hope the LA program will improve the performance of physics majors in upper level courses, convincing the faculty of the value of LAs, spreading the use of LAs to upper-division courses, and enhancing the teaching mission of the department.

The SCALE-UP approach to instruction was initiated in the Physics Department at North Carolina State University and has been adapted at many colleges and universities, including MIT. SCALE-UP, in general, refers to courses which use interactive group work, in classrooms specifically designed for the purpose. Often the classrooms, as in our case, use round tables of a specific size, with 9 seats; students at these tables often work in groups of 3, with a computer available to each of group. Whiteboards hang on all the walls of the classroom. The specific activities undertaken by the groups emphasize learning by doing, as opposed to learning by lectures. The instructor is more a facilitator of discussion, and a coach as he or she walks about the room. Groups may interact as they share results or ideas. In our setting we also use a GTA and two LAs for the SCALE-UP section, which contains about 40 freshman physics majors. This section is taught by the Department Chair, who is one of the Co-PIs on the PhysTEC project.

Perhaps one of the uncommon aspects of our PhysTEC program is the constructive combination of the PhysTEC program and a separate, independently initiated Virginia Tech program called the First Year Experience (FYE). The FYE program aims to provide freshman and transfer students with specific skills to increase their chances of success in their undergraduate studies: skills in problem solving, inquiry, and integration of information. In addition, FYE courses address career planning. Faculty can obtain university money to design courses that address these goals. I obtained FYE money to design and run an FYE course for physics majors. The course is a two-semester sequence (1 credit per semester) which is run in the SCALE-UP room, with the assistance of a GTA who is one of the PhysTEC Masters of Education (MAED) students. In addition to addressing the FYE goals, we often have the students teach their fellow group members, and we stress the importance of this activity. The FYE platform gives us a chance to introduce the LA program and teaching — teaching peers, and a teaching career.

We support all our MAED PhysTEC students using Graduate Teaching Assistantships in the Physics Department. These students have obtained their B.S. or B.A. in physics from our department, and so are quite familiar with our undergraduate labs and courses. This also means the MAED students obtain their graduate degrees, and licensure, while being entirely supported financially. Alma Robinson was one of the first students to be supported in this model before we became a PhysTEC site. This year we have five MAED PhysTEC students who obtained their undergraduate physics degrees from our department; all are supported as GTAs. 

The student I work with in the FYE course was our co-valedictorian a few years back, went to graduate school in astronomy, and returned after a year to pursue teaching as a career. He has not followed the standard PhysTEC track, since most of our PhysTEC students start their MAED program in their senior undergraduate year; thus the PhysTEC physics major-MAED sequence is a five-year program.   Usually these students take some education courses in the summer after obtaining their physics degree. Thus, support combined with an accelerated program help to make our full program attractive to potential teachers among our undergraduate majors.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of our program is the set of pre-service experiences we provide for our undergraduate PhysTEC students: a multi-level outreach program and a robotics program. The outreach program consists of two possible courses. All physics majors are welcome to enroll in the first course, Physics Outreach. In Physics Outreach students meet weekly with the GTA, usually an MAED student, where they learn how to run physics demonstrations and lead discussions about the physical principles involved in a secondary school setting. Teams of these students visit the local and regional middle and high schools, where they lead class meetings with the students in science classes. Alma Robinson was the GTA for this course when she was an MAED student. Many of our PhysTEC MAED students tell us they were first turned on to teaching through Physics Outreach. The second level of the outreach program is the Enhanced Physics Outreach course. PhysTEC students in this course must put in a greater effort, and receive a larger payback, through working more closely with the instructor (our TIR) and the local science teachers to develop detailed lesson plans for demonstration-based physics lessons in the middle school and high school science classrooms. They carry out these plans on visits to the schools. While Physics Outreach has been going on for years now, Enhanced Physics Outreach is a new addition, born of our PhysTEC program.

Our most unique program unit is our robotics program pre-service experience. The School of Education has partnered with the College of Engineering to provide a capstone course in the design and building of a robot in collaboration with the surrounding Montgomery County Public Schools. With the initiation of the PhysTEC collaboration between the School of Education and the Physics Department, our undergraduate PhysTEC students are now welcomed into the robotics program course. The physics majors are not engineers, but they quickly learn the design process, and given their strong background in physical principles, make significant contributions to the effort. The high school students meet with the engineering and physics students during the spring semester, in late afternoons and on Saturdays, in a building at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. The purpose is to design and build an entry for the national FIRST robotics program. The college students acts as coaches and mentors in the design process, the construction of the robot, the testing, and finally the entry of the completed robot in regional and, hopefully, national competitions. This past spring, there were two PhysTEC physics majors in the robotics program. The design purpose of the robot was revealed nationally early in the Spring semester: the robot had to autonomously shoot basketballs into a basket, and also do so under the remote control of a student. While the resulting Montgomery County robot did fairly well in the regional competitions in Richmond, VA, and Raleigh, NC, the team did not win a spot in the national competition in St. Louis. However, the physics students were particularly proud of the fact that their two subteams (Drivetrain and Bumper) won subteam awards at the Raleigh competition, while the subteams lead by engineering students did not. The result of the robotics program that impressed me the most was related by one of our School of Education collaborators. The parents of our two PhysTEC students in the robotics program told her they were initially uneasy that their children were pursuing a career as secondary school teachers. When the parents saw their children with the high school students at the competition, saw how their children interacted with the high school students, saw how much their children had grown through this experience, and saw how the high school students looked up to their children as mentors, the parents became completely supportive of their children’s choice to become high school physics teachers.

Technical coach in the scale-up room at Virginia Tech
The author, acting as a "coach," in the SCALE-UP room.

John Simonetti received his B.S. in physics from SUNY at Stony Brook in 1978, and received his M.S. and Ph.D. in Astronomy and Space Sciences from Cornell University in 1982 and 1985.  After he did postdoctoral work at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, he became a faculty member of the Department of Physics at Virginia Tech, where he is currently the Associate Chair.

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.