Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Summer 2006 Newsletter



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Creating and Sustaining a Teaching and Learning Professional Community at Seattle Pacific University

Lane Seeley and Stamatis Vokos

I.  Introduction

It is sometimes remarked that the modern university is a collection of independent departments united by a common physical plant. The Physics Department at Seattle Pacific University views this state of affairs as an unfortunate symptom of specialization rather than a desired feature of academic life. An authentic collaboration between a university's Physics Department and School or College of Education, enriched through close ties with partner school districts, can align all major forces that feed (or starve) the professional trajectory of a science teacher. Putting together and sustaining such collaboration is inevitably time-consuming. Yet, the rewards for the Physics Department can be great as can be the positive impact on the continuum of science teacher preparation and enhancement. This article outlines two facets of collaboration at Seattle Pacific University-among faculty (physics and education) and among students (physics majors, minors, non-majors, and preservice teachers). Due to lack of space, this article does not address a third important area of collaboration, namely among teaching professionals (preservice and inservice teachers, school administrators, and university faculty (including resident master teachers)).

II.  Collaboration Among Faculty

In 2002, the most senior member of the Physics Department had been at SPU for four years. In 2003, the Department was awarded a NSF CCLI (Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement) grant, Adapting and Implementing Research-Based Curricula in Introductory Physics Courses at Seattle Pacific University. This grant has supported a complete restructuring of all introductory physics courses at SPU, both calculus- and algebra-based. We have integrated elements from exemplary research-based curricula, including Tutorials in Introductory Physics (Physics Education Group, University of Washington), Activity-based Physics (Physics Education Research Group, University of Maryland) and Real Time Physics (University of Oregon, Tufts University, and Dickinson College).

This adaptation process has resulted in significant gains in student understanding on several measures. The fractional increase in student learning gains on national assessment instruments such as FCI, FMCE and CSEM is between 50% and 80%. Similarly, analysis of student performance on dozens of written research-based questions given before and after special instruction suggests strong improvement in student learning in several topical areas. Such fine analysis has also suggested topics with which students still struggle after instruction and modifications to the curricular materials that are necessary for a better match with our students's needs.

In addition to gains in conceptual understanding our curricular renovation has dramatically impacted the learning environment in our introductory classes. Students are now expected to take an active role in every aspect of their learning process. A majority of class time is devoted to small group activities in which the students work closely with peers and instructors to construct and test models and wrestle with new ideas. In this context students are forced to practice articulating scientific ideas and listening critically to the ideas of their peers.

Ongoing collaboration among all physics faculty has been a crucial ingredient of the program. In an environment in which individual faculty members have the freedom to structure their classes in almost any way they wish, agreement on the goals of each course and the common ways to work toward these goals have by now created positive student expectations about all introductory physics courses at SPU. A telling sign is that by the end of the first quarter of each three-quarter sequence the overwhelming majority of students consider the research-based materials as an indispensable part of their learning experience in physics.

Very early in the planning process for adopting new curricular approaches, Department members invited science education faculty to contribute to the design of a new learning environment in physics. Those initial discussions helped to establish the Physics Department as a credible voice on teaching and learning on campus. Since that time physics and education have developed a substantial collaboration, at a scale that is unequaled in Washington State.

The collaboration between Physics and Education spawned successful grant requests to private foundations. As a result SPU received ongoing funding to partially support a Resident Master Teacher who plays a pivotal role in guiding the Department's ongoing efforts in teacher education and enhancement and who now serves as a Teacher-In-Residence for our participation in PhysTEC. Working on grant-funded projects only deepened the collaboration among the disciplines. In 2005, the Physics Department leveraged this close working relationship with Education to secure a major additional NSF grant. In four years, the Department went from offering zero professional development opportunities for teachers to now offering professional development for teachers in several partner school districts, including several hundred K-8 teachers in south-central Washington.

This Departmental climate of collaboration (both within and outside) did not escape the attention of the central administration. Within a few years, the Department was awarded (a) a new tenure-track faculty position when the science education position in the School of Education was vacated due to retirement and (b) a University-funded postdoctoral position to help new PhDs become immersed in results of research on the learning and teaching of physics so as to have a future impact on Christian higher education. Physics faculty were also invited twice to present to the Universityҳ Board of Trustees results of the Departmental efforts to improve student learning. Such results were also presented at a retreat on assessment of student learning for all SPU faculty and figure prominently in the University's national communications campaign. Collaboration among faculty (physics and education) is the centerpiece of these efforts.

III.  Collaboration Among Students

Restructuring our curriculum to increase student engagement brought with it a significant challenge: the need to decrease the student to instructor ratio. The solution of this problem provided an ideal context for recruiting students for future teaching careers.

The single biggest obstacle to small group learning at the college level is the intensive instructor time that is required. Each one of the curricula that we adopted is designed to be most effective with a student to instructor ratio of no more than 10:1. We have addressed this challenge by leveraging the collective talents of our students. In the first year of implementation of the new instructional approach we made do with a suboptimal number of Teaching Assistants who were prospective teachers enrolled in the MAT program at SPU. We quickly recognized that despite our best intentions, the whole program would sink or swim on the shoulders of our Teaching Assistants. Since SPU does not have yet a graduate program in physics, we have been utilizing undergraduates who (a) have participated in the reformed courses and (b) have shown a special willingness to help others understand the material. Since those early attempts, we have been developing a cadre of Learning Assistants (LAs), who are the true core of the physics program at SPU.

Our LAs serve, alongside the course instructor, as facilitators of guided small group learning. LAs receive either credit or monetary compensation for their participation. During a typical week LAs: attend one or two 80-minute preparation sessions; assist in one to three 80-minute tutorial sessions; perform up to two hours of homework grading; and read seminal articles from the physics education literature.

Our perspective toward developing a professional community among the LAs, which is intentionally centered around learning, is grounded on results from research on the nature of effective professional development of teachers (Darling-Hammond, 2000; Garet, 2001; Hawley, 2000; Kennedy, 1998; Loucks-Horsley, 2003; Mundry, 1999). Research suggests that high quality professional development programs pay attention to three things: (a) the deepening of content knowledge for teaching (Ball & McDiarmid, 1990; Kennedy, 1997; McDermott, 1990), (b) intentional development of a learning community (Borko, 2004, 1992; Grosmann, 2001), and (c) emphasis on the study of artifacts of classroom discourse.

Critical Elements of the SPU LA Program - At first glance, the LA program has many similarities to a more common 'teaching assistant' model in which senior students assist the introductory students with their use of laboratory equipment. We believe it is important to recognize that the role of LAs is different in a number of critical ways:

LAs are explicitly trained in the pedagogical techniques they are expected to utilize. They are taught to recognize and elicit student difficulties and guide students in the development of their own working understanding through a process of progressive questioning. Instructors model teaching through questioning during preparation sessions in which LAs work through the materials as learners. Special emphasis is given to specific prevalent and problematic student ideas during these training sessions.
The curriculum used in our program is very different from standard laboratory curriculum both in methodology and objectives. Each of these curricula focuses primarily on building conceptual understanding rather than measurement techniques. Where a traditional lab TA provides an available reference for students and a source of technical expertise, an effective LA must fully engage the students and guide their learning trajectory.

SPU LA Program Attributes - Student gains on standardized assessment instruments attest to the impact of our LA program on student learning. We also have accumulated qualitative evidence that the LA program is having a significant positive impact on the LAs themselves. The most obvious measure is the popularity of the program. In 2002, we had one peer instructor. This past fall we had 21 students attend an organizational meeting for the program! This was a substantially greater number of LAs than we needed (or could accommodate easily) but we included all interested students because we came to realize that this opportunity is an important piece of the undergraduate education of all students who cross our department doors and a wonderful recruiting tool, both for the physics major and a career in science teaching.

Despite the fact that serving as an LA is difficult work and can be intimidating, students seek out these roles because they have come to embrace inquiry-based instruction and they want to participate in this style of discourse both as learners and instructors. LAs also clearly view the experience as a way to further deepen their understanding. In fact, we have had a significant number of pre-med students serve as LAs in part because they see it as a good way to prepare for the MCAT. LAs overwhelmingly express what many professors have come to recognize, "I never really get these concepts until I need to help someone else understand them."

We believe that the LA program allows us to structure our introductory courses in a way that is more accessible to students who have a strong aptitude for teaching but might not immediately gravitate toward a physics major. Small group activities increase the participation level of students who are careful, reflective thinkers rather than quick problem solvers. In addition, group learning rewards talents that are not often recognized in standard lecture courses such as critically listening to peers and carefully articulating scientific ideas. These skills are important in many vocational pursuits and obviously crucial to effective teaching.

It is important to note that nearly half of our LAs are not physics majors. A common characteristic among our LAs is a strong interest and an apparent aptitude for teaching. We expect that the LA experience of non-majors who pursue teaching careers makes them more inclined to include physics as one of the subjects they feel prepared to teach in an effective way.

We also have strong evidence that the LA program has increased the level of interest in teaching among both physics majors and minors. Through their participation LAs come to regard teaching as an intellectually rigorous and rewarding pursuit. They recognize that content knowledge is not sufficient for teaching and have the opportunity to appreciate the roles pedagogical content knowledge and curricular content knowledge play in effective teaching. Many of our physics majors who participate in the LA program go on to undertake undergraduate research projects in curricular evaluation, adaptation and development. Recently our newly rejuvenated SPS chapter received a Marsh White Award to support outreach activities to local high schools.

Remaining Challenges - There are many challenges that must be overcome to successfully implement an LA program. These include funding, faculty participation, and course restructuring to make LAs an integral part of the learning process (not just laboratory supervisors). Strategies for overcoming these challenges may differ significantly with the size, priorities and culture of individual departments. In our case, these challenges were overcome largely thanks to the universal commitment of all members of the Physics Department and the constructive relationship and strong support of university administrators.

One challenge that we continue to confront in our LA program is the complexity of scheduling. All LAs should attend the corresponding preparation session before they teach that material in the classroom. For efficiency we hope that every time an LA attends a preparation session, she has the opportunity to teach that material at least once. With two distinct tracks of introductory physics, each with multiple sections and multiple LA-led activities each week, coordination has proven to be a big challenge! Beginning next fall we plan to begin holding preparation sessions where one faculty member will supervise several groups of students each working through distinct topics. With four of these sessions per week we expect this will lend significantly greater flexibility to our training protocol.

We have also encountered a somewhat unexpected challenge of balancing community with professionalism. On the one hand we want to encourage learning environments that are informal, relaxed, and collaborative. On the other hand, we want to call our learning assistants (many of whom are juniors) to a high degree of responsibility and professionalism. These two goals are certainly not contradictory; however, achieving both has proved to be quite challenging.


The efforts described in this article are the results of intensive ongoing collaboration among all members of the Physics Department at SPU. In addition to the authors, Eleanor Close, Lezlie Salvatore DeWater, Lisa Goodenough and John Lindberg have each played major and distinct roles in all aspects of the program. Bill Rowley, Dean of the School of Education and Frank Kline, Associate Dean for Teacher Education, have been invaluable partners in all our efforts. Our own Dean, Bruce Congdon, has been an indispensable supporter of our Department.

The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of the National Science Foundation through Grants ESI 0455796 and DUE 0310583, the Boeing Corporation, and the PhysTEC project of APS, AAPT, and AIP.


Ball, D. L., & McDiarmid, G. W. (1990). The Subject-Matter Preparation of Teachers. In W. R. Houston, M. Haberman & J. Sikala (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Teacher Education. New York: Macmillan.

Borko, H. (2004). Professional Development and Teacher Learning: Mapping the Terrain. Educational Researcher, 33 (8), 3-15.

Borko, H., Bellamy, M. L., & Sanders, L. R. (1992). A cognitive analysis of patterns in science instruction by expert and novice teachers. In T. Russell, Munby, H. (Ed.), Teachers and teaching  (pp. 49-70). London, New York, Philadelphia: The Falmer Press.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2000). Studies of Excellence in Teacher Education: Preparation at the Graduate Level, a joint publication of AACTE and NCTAF.

Garet, M. S., Porter, A.C., Desimone, L., Birman, B.B., and K.S. Yoon. (2001). What Makes Professional Development Effective? Results From a National Sample of Teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 38 (4), 915-945.

Grossman, P., Wineburg, S., and Woolworth, S. (2001). Toward a theory of teacher community. Teachers College Record, 103, 942-1012.

Hawley, W. D., and L. Valli. (2000). Learner-Centered Professional Development (No. 27).

Kennedy, M. (1998). Form and Substance in Inservice Teacher Education, National Institute for Science Education Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Kennedy, M. (1997). Defining Optimal Knowledge for Teaching Science and Mathematics, National Institute for Science Education Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Loucks-Horsley, S. (2003). Designing Professional Development for Teachers of Science and Mathematics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.

McDermott, L. C. (1990). A perspective in teacher preparation in physics and other sciences: The need for special science courses for teachers. American Journal of Physics, 58. 734-742 (1990).

Mundry, S., Spector, B. , Stiles, K., and S. Loucks-Horsley. (1999). Working Toward a Continuum of Professional Learning Experiences for Teachers of Science and Mathematics (No. 17): University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Lane Seeley is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Stamatis Vokos is an Associate Professor of Physics at Seattle Pacific University.



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