Three Years of PhysTEC at Boston University

Andrew Duffy, Peter Garik, Bennett Goldberg, Mark Greenman, and Manher Jariwala
Boston University

The goal of PhysTEC (the Physics Teacher Education Coalition) is to increase the number of highly trained physics teachers graduating from colleges and universities across the country. PhysTEC is a joint effort of the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers, funded by the National Science Foundation. PhysTEC in turn funds, through competitive grants, projects at universities intended to have a lasting impact on the number of physics teachers graduating from those institutions. At Boston University, we are in the third year of a comprehensive grant from PhysTEC and we report here on the factors we have found necessary and important to build a program to support students who want to become physics teachers. These factors include:
  • a strong working relationship between the Department of Physics and the School of Education (our PI is from Physics, the co-PI from Education);
  • support from the university administration at all levels — the Physics Department Chair, the Deans of the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Education, and the Office of the Provost;
  • a dedicated, visionary and tireless physics teacher-in-residence (TIR), who is personally invested in our physics teacher preparation and recruitment program efforts;
  • a vibrant Learning Assistant (LA) program, which provides students both instruction and a low-barrier opportunity to experience teaching for themselves;
  • a Noyce Scholarship Program to attract and support physics candidates for teaching.

Cooperation between the School of Education and the Department of Physics

Boston University has a long history of cooperation between the School of Education (SED) and the Department of Physics. Beginning 10 years ago, Peter Garik (SED) and Andrew Duffy (Physics), in conjunction with Arthur Eisenkraft of the University of Massachusetts – Boston, created a comprehensive program for in-service physics teachers, targeting ill-prepared teachers, but also attracting many teachers with a solid foundation. Project ITOP – Improving the Teaching of Physics, has now trained more than 100 Massachusetts teachers with at least one ITOP course, with a significant number taking all ten of the two-credit graduate-level courses.

SED and Physics have collaborated on NSF Graduate Students in K-12 projects, on a summer science immersion program for middle school teachers, in Nanomedicine Camp, in Upward Bound, and numerous other projects. The connections that developed within BU through ITOP led to BU Physics joining PhysTEC. At the annual PhysTEC meetings, Andrew Duffy and Peter Garik learned about national reform efforts, which ultimately led to our PhysTEC grant and related efforts including a Learning Assistant Program (detailed below) and a Noyce Scholarship program for science teachers, both closely linked to our PhysTEC effort. This year’s inaugural class of eight Noyce science scholars includes two Masters of Arts in Teaching students and one undergraduate who are preparing to teach physics next year in high-need school districts.

University and Departmental Support

BU will sustain PhysTEC for three more years beyond NSF funding. Internal funding from the Office of the Provost (Provost Jean Morrison), School of Education (Dean Hardin Coleman), and Department of Physics totaling $90K per year will be used to support the physics TIR. The support from multiple levels at BU has been important in establishing and growing the program, and will be very important as we work to sustain it.  For instance, after months of development and discussion, with the support of former Physics chair Sid Redner and current Physics chair Karl Ludwig, and utilizing our TIR Mark Greenman’s three decades of experience in a local high schools, the faculty of the Department of Physics recently voted to establish a separate physics degree track for students who want to become teachers.

The Physics Teacher-in-Residence (TIR)

A master physics teacher-in-residence (TIR) is a critical component of a successful program to recruit, train, and support undergraduates to become physics teachers. The TIR is embedded in the Department of Physics, and is able to positively influence the faculty’s attitude towards physics teaching as a profession. The TIR brings years of teaching and administrative experience at the high school level. Based on this first-hand knowledge about what it takes to be an excellent physics teacher, and about the kind of preparation a budding teacher should have, the TIR provides invaluable advice to physics majors who express an interest in becoming teachers. This personal contact is a key component in recruiting.

Our TIRs have led recruiting efforts, ranging from short presentations in undergraduate physics classes, about teaching as a career and about the Learning Assistant program, to having regular meetings with undergraduates who want to be teachers. This model was established by Juliet Jenkins, our first TIR (2011-12), and continued by our second TIR, Mark Greenman (2012-2014). Through their efforts, we now have a few undergraduates who have declared their intention to become teachers.

BU Physics Teacher Network meeting
BU Physics Teacher Network meeting in October where teachers, BU undergrads, grad students and PhysTEC faculty share ideas, best practices and experiences in urban schools.

Our TIRs have also established the Boston University Physics Teacher Network (BU-PTN). Four or five times during each academic year, for two hours on a Monday evening, local teachers meet on campus to share demonstrations and experiments they do in their own classrooms, hear a talk, and spend some time talking with their colleagues. The PhysTEC grant pays for a light dinner and campus parking. This year we have had over 30 attendees at each meeting (one had more than 40). Attendees are teachers, a few undergraduate and graduate students interested in aspects of teaching, as well as members of the PhysTEC team.

To attract teachers to the meetings, we have relied on contacts built up over many years of Project ITOP, but the TIRs have also used their own personal networks. For instance, for the last several summers, Mark Greenman has run a two-week physics content workshops, with up to 24 teachers attending. Many workshop attendees are now regular participants at our BU-PTN meetings.

Learning Assistant Program

Learning Assistants are undergraduates who have taken a course and return to help current students learn the material. Learning Assistants (LAs) are near-peer teachers working with students in recitation, lab, studio, or lecture settings. LAs take a pedagogy course in teaching methods and science education research that prepares them for peer teaching. At most institutions, LAs receive compensation for being an LA in the form of a stipend or course credit.

LAs are part of an instructional team, working together with other LAs, graduate student Teaching Assistants (TAs), and faculty. Students often find their LAs to be the most approachable members of the instructional team. Because of their own recent learning experience with the course material, LAs are familiar with the learning issues that the current students struggle with. LAs also benefit from the teaching experience, generally improving their own academic efficiency by using strategies discussed in the pedagogy course.

The BU LA program began in the Department of Chemistry in the Spring semester of 2011, modeled after the University of Colorado – Boulder program. The prior October, two Chemistry postdoctoral fellows (Adam Moser, now at Loras College, IA, and Nic Hammond, now at the University of Rochester, NY) and Peter Garik attended the national LA workshop in Boulder. They came back so fired up that they immediately recruited 11 LAs for the Spring-semester General Chemistry class. Peter Garik taught the accompanying LA pedagogy class using the CU Boulder materials.

The BU program spread rapidly to Physics and Biology in Fall 2011, coinciding with the beginning of our PhysTEC program. Currently in our third year, we have LAs in Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Neuroscience, and Engineering. Funding for LAs in the original three departments, at the rate of $700 per semester, is provided by the College of Arts and Sciences. The College of Engineering funds their own LAs, and the Neuroscience LAs receive course credit.

BU Physics courses for LAs
BU Physics has built a pipeline, with LAs in courses from introductory physics through upper-division classical mechanics, electrodynamics, and quantum mechanics. Seniors teach juniors, who teach sophomores, and so on, forming a vertical learning community for undergraduate physics majors.

In Physics, the LA program is closely allied with our PhysTEC effort. Whereas other BU departments and other programs around the country generally use LAs in introductory courses, in Physics we have infused LAs into almost the entire undergraduate program. Several of the LAs who are physics majors have enjoyed the teaching experience so much that they are now seriously considering teaching as a career.

LA Alina Agamov works with 2 students
One of our LAs in physics, Alina Agamov (center) working with two students in our new Interactive Studio Classroom.

The LA program in physics has grown quickly. In the first semester, we had 12 LAs working in four physics courses, all at the introductory level. Of the 12, only three were physics majors. In Fall 2013, the fifth semester, we had 18 LAs working in nine courses, and 10 of the LAs were physics majors.

Our LAs are a key component of efforts to reform the undergraduate curriculum by introducing more student-centered methods of teaching and learning. Historically, recitation sections had a single TA for 25-30 students, with students passively watching the TA teaching at the chalkboard. Now that we have one LA paired with a TA in each section, students spend the majority of the time working on worksheet-based exercises in small groups, and the LA and TA circulate, answering questions and guiding thinking and peer-learning.

LAs are also having a significant impact in our more advanced undergraduate courses. For example, the instructor in our Methods in Theoretical Physics class has adopted a flipped classroom approach, transforming the recitation sections into group problem-solving sessions, with the students helped by the instructor, the TA, and the LA.

LAs are contributing to reforms in other settings, too. We now teach three (of five) sections of our introductory physics class for life-science majors in a new 81-student studio classroom, and one section (of two) of our off-sequence introductory physics class for engineering majors. In each studio section, students learn with the help of one instructor, two TAs, and two LAs.

Program Summary

The PhysTEC project at Boston University has been a catalyst for change. The presence of a physics teacher-in-residence has contributed greatly to our efforts to recruit physics majors into teaching; to our course-reform endeavors; and, to the establishment of a network of local high school physics teachers. The strong relationship with the School of Education has advanced the LA program and led to a new teaching track for Physics majors. Three years has not been long enough to complete all of our objectives but, thanks to PhysTEC funding, much has been accomplished. Over the next few years, we plan to expand the LA program, develop sustainable support, and advance course reform, contributing to an atmosphere at a top research university in which becoming a science teacher, in particular a physics teacher, is perceived as a first-rate career option for undergraduate science majors.

Andrew Duffy is a Master Lecturer in Physics and PI of Boston University’s PhysTEC program.

Peter Garik, Clinical Associate Professor of Science Education, is a physicist who is PI for the BU Noyce Scholarship Program for science students and co-PI for the  PhysTEC grant.

Bennett Goldberg is a professor of physics, biomedical and electrical engineering and is the inaugural Director of STEM Education Initiatives at BU.

Manher Jariwala is a Lecturer in physics and also directs the department's Learning Assistant program.

Mark Greenman serves as Teacher-in-Residence at Boston University and is a Presidential Award winner and a past recipient of AAPT’s Paul Zitzewitz Award for Excellence in K-12 Physics Teaching.

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.