Improving Physics Education through a Diverse Research and Learning Community at Florida International University

Laird Kramer, Eric Brewe, and George O’Brien

Florida International University (FIU) is changing the face of physics education in South Florida, with the goal of increasing the quality and quantity of physics teachers, including traditionally underrepresented minorities and woman, through an integrated research and learning community. Leading the effort is the FIU PhysTEC Project, one of four new PhysTEC (Physics Teacher Education Coalition) Primary Program Institutions that began operation in summer 2007. PhysTEC is a joint effort to improve teacher preparation facilitated by three national physics societies: the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), American Institute of Physics (AIP), and American Physical Society (APS). The member institutions are deeply engaged in the enterprise of producing more and better-prepared elementary, middle, and high school teachers.

The FIU PhysTEC Project is embedded within a physics research and learning community centered in sustained educational reform, adoption and adaption of successful national programs, and community development via partnership. To gain an understanding of how the project will realize its goals, we start by building an appreciation for this physics research and learning community. Then we move on to see how the PhysTEC Project and the FIU community merge to create a successful model. The physics community emerged from a multi-disciplinary team representing both the Department of Physics in the College of Arts & Sciences and the College of Education, and was seeded by several collaborative research grants. The CHEPREO project provided the foundational impetus for the community.

CHEPREO: Foundation of the Physics Learning Community

CHEPREO, the inter-regional grid-enabled Center for High Energy Physics Research and Education Outreach, is an NSF-funded multidisciplinary, multi-institution project based at FIU that supports research in particle physics, grid computing, and advanced networking at CERN. Significant CHEPREO resources are devoted to excite, entice, and retain science and math students using the project’s cutting-edge science as a foundation. CHEPREO targets high school and university students as well as the stakeholders that support them: teachers, faculty, parents, etc. Students and stakeholders have come together to form a vibrant research and learning community that provides students with inquiry-based pedagogy and high energy physics, physics education, and cyber research experiences to ensure deep physics understanding that spans fundamental through bleeding-edge physics research. Through these efforts, CHEPREO has redefined the education outreach model for physics, providing pathways and support for students, especially those from traditionally underrepresented groups, to pursue science careers. Before delving into the model, we need to describe FIU and the South Florida region.

Florida International University is a minority serving urban public research institution located in Miami, Florida. Over 38,000 students were enrolled at FIU in the fall of 2007, a population that included 59% Hispanic, 12% African American, and 56% female students (2007 data). Most FIU students come from the South Florida region, a region where the fourth (Miami-Dade County) and sixth (Broward County) largest public school districts in the country are located. Enrollment in introductory physics courses at FIU reflects a diversity similar to that of FIU as a whole and includes 62% Hispanic, 13% African American, and 40% female students (2004 data). The research design of our model supports all student populations; however, we find that it supports our diverse population very well.

The physics department at FIU includes 82 intended and declared undergraduate majors, 33 graduate students (mostly PhD candidates), and 22 faculty. Our physics department also reflects the diversity of FIU. The 82 majors listed in Fall 2006 include 67% Hispanic, 6% African American, and 20% female students. Similar representation is reflected in our bachelor’s degrees granted since 2001: 71% Hispanic, 6% African American, and 29% female students.

Our treatment includes both high school and undergraduate students, so we begin with the high school component. The high school community is centered on working with educational partners (students, teachers, administrators, and schools) to bring excellent content-pedagogy to the classroom and high-energy physics outreach to the high school community. This combination provides teachers with techniques for everyday classroom instruction as well as added activities that build excitement for the future. The physics modeling approach developed by Wells, Hestenes, and Swackhamer has been used as the content-pedagogic standard [Wel95]. Modeling was chosen due to its well-documented success in high school classrooms, its student-as-scientist structure, its active-studio format, its adoptability to introductory physics courses at the university, and its community-building nature both for teachers and students. Our research has shown that modeling was an excellent choice, as evidenced by student performance, community building, and recruitment. High-energy physics outreach is centered in QuarkNet, a well-developed national model of outreach and community building. FIU became one of the 60 QuarkNet centers in 2004. Modeling and QuarkNet form the synergistic foundation of our high school community. The community has evolved substantially, meeting on a year-round basis with multiple activities planned for students and teachers throughout the year.

Typically, a teacher’s induction into the community begins with a summer workshop. Two three-week long summer modeling workshops are offered every year (starting in 2003). The high school community now extends to over 80 teachers in over 45 different schools in the South Florida region as well as many teachers in other states and regions in Florida impacting well over 10,000 students a year. High-school activities include intensive summer workshops for teachers, regular meetings of our teacher community named FizMo (Physics Modelers), and a series of high school student activities that entice students to pursue science degrees and careers.

CHEPREO has also transformed the undergraduate experience by creating a physics research and learning community. The undergraduate community starts with the modeling approach-based, guided-inquiry introductory physics classes and high-energy physics experiences and extends the experiences to include a research and learning fellowship program, physics education research (PER), and the establishment of the Physics Learning Center. The undergraduate community impacts all physics majors and many other science and science/math education majors in addition to the fellows and modeling class students who are the direct recipients of the support.

The first studio classes at FIU were our introductory, modeling-based studio physics classes pioneered to support our undergraduate community members. We offer three, 30-student sections of modeling-based physics classes each semester. Cooperative learning is thought to better support under-represented minorities and women than traditional classrooms; hence, our studio classrooms support all students including minorities and women, in alignment with our goals and research focus. These courses have been extremely successful, in terms of student learning outcomes, faculty assessments, and recruiting. The average student performance on the Force Concept Inventory (FCI) [Hes92] in the modeling-based courses is roughly a factor of 2.5 better than in our traditional courses. Also, the DWF rate (drop, withdraw, fail) in modeling-based classes is 1/4th the DWF rate in traditional classes. Faculty evaluations and student feedback have been overwhelmingly positive, and the courses are drawing roughly four times the room capacity in requests to enter the class. We also find 10-20% of the students pursue physics minors and majors after taking the course, either adding a second major/minor or switching majors.

Components that extend the community are the CHEPREO fellowship program and the Physics Learning Center. CHEPREO fellowships give students a unique opportunity to experience both teaching and research. Fellows participate in our summer modeling workshops (working with the teachers) and then go on to assist in the modeling-based courses, lead study sessions, and/or work in the open labs during the first half of their program. As their physics knowledge builds, they concentrate on research. The dual nature of the fellowships allows students to experience both teaching and research so they can confidently make career decisions. The Physics Learning Center includes the modeling classroom, conference room, and lounge. The center is open to fellows and physics majors around the clock, and has become a crucial component of the students’ lives.

The impact of combining the undergraduate and high school communities can be seen through many factors. High school teachers using modeling have high student achievement (the average student performance on the FCI is more than twice that of traditional courses). The modeling classes have high student achievement and low DFW rates, as noted above. Department enrollment is up: in our Modern Physics I course (a gateway to upper level courses) enrollment has increased from 9 students in Fall 1997 to over 30 students in Fall 2007, and graduation rates of physics majors increased from 2 or 3 a year in the decade prior to the implementation of the program to 8 in the 2005-2006 academic year and 12 in 2006-2007. It is especially exciting that these improvements are embedded in our diverse community with the DFW results improved strongly across all minority and gender categories.

Our preliminary research into the causes of this transformation is also showing fascinating results. Fellows are seeding the rest of the physics majors with their experiences, thus impacting the larger physics community. A case study of undergraduate teaching assistants hired by the department, comparing ones with modeling experiences to those without modeling experiences, showed that not only the modeling students brought very advanced teaching attitudes (student-centric, Socratic dialogue, group work) to their TA work, but so did several of the non-modeling students. Therefore, students interact about teaching methods throughout their time in the physics learning community. Pathways between high schools and FIU are well established, having broken down barriers through the community approach, resulting in teachers sending students directly to the department.

Our success has been leveraged in many ways, including extending the reform movement deeper into the physics and curriculum and instruction departments, serving as a model for reform in other units in the university, and as a model for many complementary funding proposals. The Department of Education Students' Equity and Achievement in Mathematics and Science project (SEAMS) and the FIU PhysTEC Project are all examples of projects leveraged off of the core CHEPREO project. FIU’s PhysTEC Project illustrates that synergy as it builds a model for improving the quality and quantity of physics teachers.

The FIU PhysTEC Project

The FIU PhysTEC project utilizes a multilevel approach that incorporates several successful PhysTEC components into the FIU physics community foundation, yielding a model that supports pre-service teachers all the way from recruitment though successful induction. Top students in our introductory physics sequence will be recruited and offered the opportunity to "test drive" teaching immediately upon joining the program. These learning assistants (LAs) will develop their skills in inquiry-based classrooms where they will learn and lead with the best pedagogical methods. To ensure a smooth transition to the classroom after graduation, we will immerse the LA in our learning and research community and provide induction and mentoring into the initial phase of high school teaching. Our implementation includes a teacher in residence (TIR) who will lead much of the program, contribute to curricular development, provide sage advice and mentoring to both LAs and faculty, help document the site’s assessment, and provide support for beginning teachers while experiencing professional development at FIU.

The heart of our PhysTEC program is the recruitment, preparation, support, and long-term commitment to our pre-service physics teachers. The top 20% of freshman and sophomores will be recruited and given an early field experience immediately upon joining the program. This experience gives LAs the opportunity to assist in an active learning classroom, learn about the teaching profession, and experience the intellectual challenges of teaching. They will also enroll in our new Seminar in Teaching course that will help prepare them for their field experience and begin learning about teaching methods. The LA experience mimics much of the CHEPREO fellow initial experience: both experience inquiry-based learning immediately upon joining the program, thus seeding both programs.

LAs that elect to continue in the program receive more training and assume greater teaching responsibility, participate in our mentoring support system, and recruit the next cadre of LAs while they prepare for full teacher credentialing. Upon graduation, an LA will have had multiple, inquiry-based teaching experiences and be fully ready to successfully enter the classroom. To further ensure their success, LAs will continue to receive support from teacher mentors and our South Florida learning community.

The teacher in residence (TIR) is a master teacher who spends one year on a rotating appointment at FIU. For the project, they provide much of the leadership and support for daily operations: mentoring LAs, helping document the site’s assessment and evaluation, providing support for curricular reform, and aiding LAs when they enter the classroom. TIRs also provide crucial feedback and support for the department: building bridges with faculty, providing input on students and curricula, and sharing their professional experience. For the teacher, the TIR position offers the opportunity for professional development so they may take their skills to another level and experience the university community. They take their experiences back to the classroom, further impacting the community.

The PhysTEC project is also a vehicle for education reform within the physics department, leveraging off of the training opportunities for LAs and the experience of the TIR and the team. At FIU, this has translated into reforming the traditional introductory laboratory sequence for those students not in the modeling courses. Tutorial-style labs were introduced in six of fourteen Introductory Physics I Laboratory sections in Spring 2008, providing the opportunity for LAs and the TIR to experience first-hand both how to implement change and how to measure the effect of that change through the FCI and an attitudinal study. This also offers the opportunity for a feedback loop for further reform, providing the department with the notion of "If reforming the labs does this, what would happen if both lectures and labs were reformed?"


In this short article, we have provided an overview of our vibrant physics research and learning community, an emergent model specifically designed to engage all members of our diverse community, treating the whole community as scientists to achieve our goal of increasing the quantity and quality of scientists and science educators. In our five-year history, we have redefined the education and outreach model for our physics department, a model that has transformed the department. Our model is one of collaborative, coherent, synergistic project building, using grants to kick start our efforts from which we leverage and expand to suit the needs of our students: the future scientific community.

These efforts mark the beginning. FIU has designated a goal of becoming one of the top ten urban-serving public research institutions in the country within a decade. Our efforts will help serve that goal by producing models that support high quality students, expanding the research mission both in education research and through support of broader impact criteria, and creating teachers that will engage the next generation of students.

Work supported by the CHEPREO project (NSF #0312038) and the FIU PhysTEC Project (AIP, AAPT, APS).


[Hes92] Hestenes, D., Wells, M. & Swackhamer, G., "Force Concept Inventory," The Physics Teacher, 30, 141-158 (1992).

[Wel95] Wells, M., Hestenes, D., & Swackhamer, G. "A modeling method for high school physics instruction," Am. J. Phys., 63 (7), 606-619 (1995). Also see

Laird Kramer (Physics faculty,, Eric Brewe, and George O'Brien (both College of Education faculty) form the nucleus of the Physics Education Research Group at Florida International University.  They lead the FIU PhysTEC and CHEPREO projects.