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By Rachel Gaal
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" Children asked this age-old question might succeed in their aspirations, taking the classes in school that interest them and align with their goals. But when it comes to those who are pursuing careers in physics, many might decide by their first physics class (if they are offered one before college at all) that this field isn’t for them.
While the number of students pursuing physics and STEM degrees is increasing, some might not be exposed to the true beauty of physics in high school, in part because thousands of teachers are not adequately prepared to teach physics in the U.S. Out of more than 13,000 physics teachers, 63 percent have no major or minor in physics or are not certified, according to a recent report commissioned by the APS Panel on Public Affairs. In the U.S., only about 40 percent of high school graduates in the class of 2014 were enrolled in at least one physics course before college, and only 26 percent of high school seniors who expressed interest in a STEM major met a benchmark showing them prepared to be successful in a rigorous higher education STEM discipline.
"Many of the best opportunities in the United States for challenging and rewarding jobs will require mastery of subjects such as computer science and physics," said Michael Marder, a physicist at the University of Texas, in the APS press release of the STEM report. "Every student in every high school deserves a great teacher in these fields — but right now the teachers are simply not enough."
These are some of the many statistics that motivate the Physics Teacher Education Coalition, (PhysTEC), to fund interested universities around the nation to recruit and prepare physics teachers in new and innovative ways.
"We always have to say ‘There is a critical shortage of physics teachers’ due to the fact that over half of high schools classes are not taught by someone with a physics degree’," says Renee-Michelle Goertzen, APS education programs manager and PhysTEC principal investigator. "A lot of physicists don't know this ... but it's simply the case of why [our] program has to exist."
PhysTEC was founded in 2001 with a mission to "improve and promote the education of physics teachers at the secondary school levels." The program’s network of schools has grown to over 300 institutions spanning all 50 states, including seven international member institutions. While some are involved in partial programs, receiving smaller grants from PhysTEC, there are multiple schools that received awards which revamped their whole curriculum.
These schools, called Comprehensive Sites, go through a set of crash courses to weave the key components of successful physics teacher preparation into their undergraduate programs. By including specific components — such as teachers-in-residence, mentoring opportunities, and early teaching experiences — their new curriculum embodies a complete learning experience and serves as an "all-star example" for other schools to emulate.
The results of PhysTEC’s helping hand tells a story of significant improvement in the number of physics teachers headed into the classroom (see chart on page 1). In particular, out of the 21 Comprehensive Sites before funding, over half graduated zero teachers per year. After their grant period, the total number of physics teachers graduating from Comprehensive Sites tripled, with some schools graduating over seven teachers each year on average. If all U.S. physics departments did the same, the national physics teacher shortage would be nearly eliminated.
For those schools that graduate five or more students per year, the institution is inducted into the PhysTEC 5+ Club. Every year, this special initiative continues to grow — and this past academic year, nine new U.S. institutions were inducted.
Schools that are currently or were previously involved in the Comprehensive Site grants were eager to share the difference it made to their school’s reputation and the overall interest in their physics programs. Georgia State University was one of the programs that hit the ground running when PhysTEC came along.
"We had a physics teaching preparation program, but only at the masters level," Brian Thoms of Georgia State University told APS News. "One year before our grant, we started the undergraduate path [for physics teaching] in 2012."
Thoms is the PhysTEC site leader at his institution and just finished his grant period in July 2016. Their once-new pathway offered a concentration in education within the physics bachelor degree, also leading to teacher certification.
"PhysTEC helped us get the new path going, and reform some of our courses to be more attractive and effective for the undergrads," Thoms explained. "We also had a teacher-in-residence, an actual physics teacher who was in contact with the students … someone who could tell them what it’s really like in a high school classroom… [Our] grant helped to get the word out very quickly and to ramp up the undergraduate path from zero [students] to three or four students a year, right away."
The popularity of the Georgia State undergraduate path landed them a spot in the 5+ Club this past year, their second award since 2013 when they graduated six teachers during their second year offering the teaching path. "Actually, this year and the year after, we are on track to get [The 5+ Club award] again," mentioned Thoms.
Another school that has been apart of The 5+ Club in recent years, Middle Tennessee State University, had revamped its efforts for their undergraduate program in light of the state’s new requirement that increased the number of science and math courses needed to graduate from high school. Physics professor Ron Henderson commented on the biggest benefits he’s seen at his school since getting involved with PhysTEC.
"One of the largest impacts was having a marketing consultant visit the department," Henderson explained. "Us realizing how to phrase our message so it meant something to incoming students — that was a big deal."
In addition to reforming their calculus-based physics sequence for incoming freshman, and rearranging the curriculum to offer a "physics teaching" concentration within the degree, Henderson said the site visits were among the larger impressions made on the University as a whole.
"These outside people coming here and saying, ‘This physics department is ready to do good things and educate high school teachers’... Even to this day, it has been years since [the site visits], but my president will [tell me], ‘That is so impressive that the representatives of [PhysTEC] came on site and were so complimentary of our department’."
University of Colorado at Boulder has been involved with PhysTEC since 2004, during its first steps in supporting the Colorado Learning Assistant program that is renowned today. Noah Finkelstein, a professor of physics at Boulder, is one of the three site leaders for PhysTEC, and has seen an incredible amount of change in the way his department approaches the idea of teaching, regardless of career choice.
"Historically, we’ve beaten the interest out of people in freshman physics ... and our department wasn't active in negating that sentiment … PhysTEC and the learning assistant program helped us get the message out — that one of the best things you can do for your career is be an educator, and that it [can offer] a meaningful and rewarding life … All of this has shifted the overall mindset in our department, [and] we now have a staple class for both graduate and undergraduates for teaching and learning physics."
No matter how many schools are activists for this cause, the PhysTEC family has their eyes on the prize — to encourage, recruit, and put qualified teachers into schools around the nation — to give the future physicists an exciting and rewarding look at physics in the classroom. To learn more about PhysTEC, visit their homepage.
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Rachel Gaal
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik