- American Physical Society Sites
- Meetings & Events
- Policy & Advocacy
- Careers In Physics
- About APS
- Become a Member
Kurt Fletcher – State University of New York at Geneseo
A team of college faculty, high school science teachers and enthusiastic physics majors are completing the first year of funding as a Targeted Site supported by the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC). The Geneseo PhysTEC Site is reinvigorating a long-established physics teacher education program through special attention to early teaching experiences, an enhanced recruitment program, and the efforts of a well-qualified part-time Teacher-In-Residence (TIR). Through these efforts we expect to double the number of graduates certified to teach physics from our current average of three per year.
Geneseo's PhysTEC team includes Kurt Fletcher and James McLean from the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Dennis Showers from the Ella Cline Shear School of Education. Our part-time TIR, Mr. Rob Sells, is a physics teacher at Mt. Morris Central School. Mr. Sells has a wide variety of teaching experiences: he has taught physics to students in the Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, inmates at the Groveland Correctional Facility, undergraduates at Alfred State University, and now public school students in a nearby high school in Mt. Morris, NY. This diverse experience is particularly useful as he mentors pre-service teachers in the Geneseo program.
To address the PhysTEC goals of demonstrating "successful models for increasing the number of highly qualified high school physics teachers" and transforming "physics departments to engage in preparing physics teachers"1, the Geneseo site is adopting key components of the PhysTEC program to integrate into the physics department culture. The Department of Physics and Astronomy at SUNY Geneseo has been quite successful in attracting physics majors and preparing them for graduate school in physics and engineering. There are eight full time physics faculty and over 200 physics majors at Geneseo, a campus with 5100 undergraduate students located about 30 miles south of Rochester, New York. In 2011, 33 students earned bachelors' degrees in physics from Geneseo. About one-third of physics graduates go directly into graduate programs in physics and one-third enter graduate engineering programs. Geneseo physics graduates are working as professors at colleges and universities, scientists at national laboratories, researchers at small start-up companies, engineers, medical professionals, attorneys, financial analysts, educational technology consultants, computer programmers, and in many other fields.
Undergraduate research is strongly encouraged at SUNY Geneseo and in the Physics and Astronomy Department. Geneseo physics majors work on projects in applied nuclear physics, inertial confinement fusion, optics, general relativity, engineering, condensed matter physics, biophysics, and astronomy. The Department supports a 1.7 MeV tandem Pelletron particle accelerator which is used for materials analysis using PIXE and RBS techniques and for the development and characterization of particle detection systems such as Thompson Parabolic Spectrometers. Other major equipment, such as a 20-inch Ritchey-Chretien telescope, an optical laboratory for cavity-enhanced spectroscopy, a 30-keV duoplasmatron ion source, etc. are used for undergraduate research on a regular basis.
In this physics-rich environment students who want to pursue graduate studies in physics or engineering find opportunities related to their interests, working with physics faculty. However, students who want to teach physics in high school have not always found a similar community within our Department. Although individual physics faculty have provided outreach to K-12 students (visiting classrooms, hosting tours of high school students, etc.), little of that activity has included physics majors or had a direct impact on physics teacher candidates. While the faculty have been supportive of physics teacher candidates, there was a perceived bias among some students that preparation of physics teachers was not as important as preparation of potential physics graduate students. This is not surprising given there is less support for endeavors that support future teachers compared to other research projects. Some of the projects undertaken in physics could be used as teaching platforms in high school. For example small projects that investigate model rocket engines, human gait analysis, musical instrument experiments and laser light properties are all inexpensive and effective learning tools that have benefited Geneseo physics teacher candidates in the past.
One year after receiving funding as a PhysTEC Targeted Site, we are forming a community of physics teacher candidates–from firstyear students to seniors–who enjoy the opportunity to get together and support one another while working on PhysTEC activities. This has become an important (and unexpected) outcome of the project for our students. Olivia, a sophomore physics major reports:
"PhysTEC truly became something special. Not only did it bring students pursuing similar career paths together, but it created a group of friends that push each other to achieve greatness in all aspects of teaching. The collaborative meetings are filled with laughter, ideas, praise and progress. Each student brings their own innovative teaching style to the table, making for better future educators."
The PhysTEC group has convened several times a semester to work on shared projects, spend some time with our teacher-in-residence and PhysTEC faculty, and discuss issues pertinent to physics teaching. We have been able to do this in several ways.
Our Build-it, Leave-it, Teach-it (or BLT) program is a distinctive component of PhysTEC at Geneseo. PhysTEC identifies Early Teaching Experiences as one of the key components of the program. Geneseo's BLT program is an opportunity for our physics majors to spend time in local high school classrooms presenting to high school students. Through the BLT program students and Geneseo professors select, design, and build equipment for a particular physics demonstration, discuss ways to present the physics content of the demonstration to the students, and practice the presentations. Geneseo physics teacher candidates travel in pairs to participating high school physics classrooms and give their presentations. The teacher candidates get valuable feedback by talking with the participating physics teacher about their presentation. The physics demonstration equipment is then donated to that school's classroom.
The first BLT demonstration was "The Race" where two 0.75-inch diameter ball bearings are released at the top of inclined tracks of identical lengths. After rolling down a 45 degree section for 20 cm and traversing a short level section, one ball rolls uphill and then downhill while the other rolls down and then back uphill. Both balls end up on a level section at the same height. Students predict which ball will win the race or whether they will tie. Eight of "The Race" units were constructed and physics majors have given presentations at four local schools. The high school students have peppered Geneseo candidates with questions about the physics but also topics such as what college life is like.
The next BLT demo illustrates Lenz's Law for induced currents and has been presented by one team at a local school. Information on the materials and methods used to produce these demonstrations are posted online at the Geneseo PhysTEC site. We will produce two new demos each year and present them in local classrooms.
One of our physics majors summarizes the impact of these BLT visits: "Nothing you'd learn from a textbook can match the experience of going up in front of a class of high-school students and actually teaching them something, and PhysTEC granted me that opportunity through the BLT program."
In addition to the BLT program our relationship with our part time Teacher-In-Residence, who teaches fulltime at a local school, has created some unexpected opportunities for early teaching experiences. It is difficult for schools in our area to find substitute teachers who have a background in physics. Mr. Sells has had several of our PhysTEC students work with him to prepare lessons that they present to his students when he is away and a (non-physics) substitute teacher is in charge of his high school physics class. This is a program that benefits everyone. The substitute teacher provides classroom management, the Geneseo physics teacher candidates get to teach a substantial lesson to real high school students, and Mr. Sells can take planned absences knowing that his students are benefiting from instruction that he personally vetted. Since the same pair of Geneseo students have worked with Mr. Sells' class several times this year, they are familiar to the high school students in the class.
A second way in which we have supported the community of physics teacher candidates is through participation in national physics education meetings. This exposes our students to some of the various forms of instruction supported by physics education research. Last January two of our PhysTEC students attended the winter meeting of the AAPT in Ontario, CA, with physics faculty member James McLean. These students participated in workshops on "nTIPERs: Research-Based Reasoning Tasks for Intro Mech" and "Learner-Centered Environment for Algebra-Based Physics"2. After returning to campus they shared their insights and comments with the rest of the Geneseo PhysTEC community at an evening meeting. During the summer of 2012 a larger group of Geneseo students will attend the national AAPT meeting in Philadelphia. We expect these shared professional development activities to strengthen our teacher candidate community.
To meet our goal of increasing our production of highly qualified high school physics candidates ready to succeed in classrooms we need to stress recruitment in a wide variety of ways. Because we have a good number of physics majors already, at Geneseo we focus on recruiting existing physics majors into teaching. This effort is somewhat complicated by the number of education courses that students need to complete to be recommended for certification by the College and the way these courses dovetail into the physics curriculum. Given these realities, students are better served if they identify their interest in teaching within their first or second year of college. The Geneseo PhysTEC recruitment strategy has focused on the first-year students. Physics faculty and the Teacher- In-Residence have visited introductory calculus-based physics classes each semester to invite students to be involved in the local PhysTEC program. We created a Geneseo PhysTEC website that is linked to the Physics Department webpage and features information about our activities. We designed and printed "Teach People Physics" posters featuring photos of recent alumni teaching in area school districts. We invited these alumni to speak at Department Colloquia and at alumni career panels. We hosted an academic advisement night where Dennis Showers from the School of Education reviewed the requirements for students seeking certification and answered questions for students planning their course schedules. We highlighted the PhysTEC program in our recruitment PowerPoint presentation that physics faculty give to groups of prospective students over eight times each year.
While all these recruitment efforts may encourage students who are thinking about entering the teaching profession, we realize that–when it comes to career advice–most students find one-onone conversations to be more meaningful than websites or posters. Our Teacher-In-Residence, Rob Sells, has embraced this component of the recruitment strategy. During the first several weeks of the fall semester he scheduled individual meetings with each of the PhysTEC students to talk with them about how they are doing in the program, to learn why teaching interests them, and to answer questions they may have about the teaching profession. In the course of these conversations he has developed a relationship with many of our PhysTEC students.
Our TIR also holds office hours on Monday and Tuesday evenings, when first-year physics majors are crowding into the nearby Physics Learning Center to work on homework assignments that are due mid-week but regular faculty are not available. He offers problem- solving advice and tutoring for first-year students, regardless of whether or not they are physics teacher candidates. This also provides him with informal opportunities to talk to first-year physics majors about the teaching profession.
We expect that these recruitment strategies are having a positive effect and we are tracking our students to evaluate the impact. Attendance at PhysTEC evening meetings fluctuates as the demands of the semester ebb and flow, but we have had as many as sixteen students in attendance. (Pizza helps.)
After less than a year as a PhysTEC Targeted Site, we are still experimenting with how to integrate PhysTEC activities into the Geneseo culture. We have several new ideas we are exploring.
One is linking with the strong commitment Geneseo has to undergraduate research. Since PhysTEC students are already preparing and presenting BLT demonstrations at local school districts, our PhysTEC students could design and conduct physics education research projects using something like the Interactive Lecture Demonstration3 model. This is a way to investigate high school students' preconceived notions about the physical world. This could turn into a nice research project for a team of PhysTEC undergraduate researchers and could result in a research poster at our campus-wide research symposium or at another local meeting. Linking the PhysTEC teaching activities with undergraduate research would raise the status of our BLT program from an optional outreach program to a scholarly pursuit on par with other undergraduate research projects. In addition, treating the BLT activity in a more scholarly way demonstrates to our PhysTEC students that we value teaching that is reflective and informed by pedagogical research.
A second goal for the future of PhysTEC at SUNY Geneseo involves integrating the PhysTEC Teacher Advisory Group (TAG) which we formed to guide our efforts and our PhysTEC students. In early fall we held the first meeting of the TAG, which included six area physics teachers, several of whom are Geneseo alumni. At this meeting we introduced them to the plans and goals for the program, and sought their support and feedback. At all future meetings we will set aside a time for our PhysTEC undergraduates to meet and mingle with the TAG teachers so that our students will have a larger pool of mentors available to ask questions and to discuss career options. Our undergraduates will be able to capitalize on the experiences and enthusiasm of these seasoned high school teachers, and our TAG members will enjoy supporting and enriching the college experiences for our students. It may be hard to build those kinds of relationships based on biannual meetings, but there are great resources available to us that we would like to tap for the benefit of our PhysTEC undergraduates.
By developing new early teaching experience opportunities, enhancing recruitment efforts, and paying particular attention to the needs of physics majors who want to share their enthusiasm for physics with high school students, we are strengthening the preparation of physics teachers at SUNY Geneseo and working on our goal of increasing the number of exceptional future high school physics teachers. Over the next two years we will focus on building sustainable programs that will work well for us and adapting the principles that have been articulated as part of the national Physics Teacher Education Coalition to our local context.
3. David R. Sokoloff and Ronald K. Thornton," Interactive Lecture Demonstrations, Active Learning in Introductory Physics," Wiley (2004).
Kurt Fletcher is a Distinguished Teaching Professor of Physics at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught since 1993. Fletcher's research interests include physics education, experimental nuclear physics, and inertial confinement fusion.