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At the University of Colorado, becoming a K-12 science teacher is a popular career option for some of the best science students.
This is in part due to some of the reforms that have been implemented in connection with the university’s participation in an APS-led program to improve teacher preparation, said Valerie Otero, a professor of science education. In particular, the university’s “learning assistant” program has inspired more students to be interested in teaching.
The University of Colorado is one of the participating institutions in PhysTEC, the Physics Teacher Education Coalition, a program led by APS in partnership with the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) and the American Institute of Physics (AIP). Schools that participate in PhysTEC implement several reforms, including increasing collaboration between the physics and education departments, revising introductory courses to be more inquiry-based, and having a “teacher-in-residence” who mentors students and provides advice to the faculty. The University of Colorado PhysTEC leader is Noah Finkelstein. Co-leaders are Otero, Michael Dubson, and Steven Pollock.
One unique aspect of the University of Colorado’s program is its innovative use of “learning assistants,” undergraduates who help students in the introductory science courses in problem-solving tutorial sessions. The learning assistants help make it possible for the introductory classes to do more student-centered activities, said Otero. Their role is similar to that of graduate student “teaching assistants,” said Otero. “We call them ‘learning assistants’ because they assist people learning.”
In some of the introductory science classes, the students participate in tutorial sessions, in addition to large lectures. Students break into small groups, and the learning assistants help them with problems, guide their learning, and assess what they’ve mastered and what concepts are troublesome. They do not provide the students answers to the problems, but help them progress through Socratic dialogue.
Studies by the physics education research group at the university have shown that the students in courses with learning assistants show greater learning gains than students in other types of courses.
In addition to helping other students, the learning assistants take a special course designed for them on teaching and learning science. The course has proved quite useful, said Otero, and in fact some graduate student teaching assistants say they want to take the course too.
At the University of Colorado, there are 48 learning assistants, 18 of them in physics, the rest in other science departments. Undergraduates can apply to become learning assistants as early as the second semester of their freshman year. It is a desirable position that many students want.
Many of the learning assistants have not previously thought of teaching as a career, said Otero, but their experience as learning assistants inspires them to consider it. About 15 percent of the learning assistants end up enrolling in the university’s school of education teacher preparation program.
These are some of the best science students with high grade point averages, not students who are doing poorly. Otero emphasized that it used to be that science students who expressed interest in becoming K-12 teachers were considered weird, but now teaching has become a cool and popular option, she said.
More faculty members are getting involved in using learning assistants as well. “The faculty are embracing it,” said Otero. They learn from feedback that the learning assistants provide them. Even faculty members who were initially skeptical of the idea are now trying it.
In addition to their learning assistant program, the Colorado PhysTEC team has implemented several other programs. A teacher advisory group, composed of teachers from local schools, meets several times a year with the University of Colorado PhysTEC team. The teachers in the group share their experiences and provide advice and insights on what works best in their classrooms and what training new teachers need. Two teachers-in-residence also provide real-world advice for the PhysTEC program.
The University of Colorado has a strong physics education research program in the physics department, and they incorporate what they learn from that research into the PhysTEC program and revised courses.
The university also has a special curriculum in physics for elementary school teachers, which integrates physics and education.
As with the other PhysTEC participating institutions, there is significant coordination between the physics and education departments, and between the university and the local schools.
That coordination is extremely important. “It would be ridiculous for the education department to try to prepare students to be physics teachers without the help of the physics department, and it would be ridiculous for the physics department to try to teach science without input from the education department. It’s also ridiculous to try to prepare future teachers without input from teachers,” said Otero.
Since the Colorado PhysTEC program is new, having just started in 2004, they don’t have any graduates yet, but after the program has produced some new teachers, the physics education research group plans to conduct a study comparing the preparation of those new teachers to ones who have not participated in PhysTEC.
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