Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Fall 2005 Newsletter



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Development of the Physics Teacher Education Program
at Illinois State University

Carl J. Wenning & Richard F. Martin, Jr.

Like many former state teacher's colleges, Illinois State University used to offer only degrees in teaching. In a statewide university growth spurt in the 1960's, the former physical science department split into separate physics and chemistry departments. The new physics department gained a second degree program titled "Arts and Sciences Physics" - essentially a traditional physics degree. As the university moved toward its current status as a comprehensive university, this "arts and sciences" degree, rechristened simply "physics", overshadowed the physics teacher education (PTE) degree to such an extent that by the 1990's the number of majors enrolled in the PTE program had dwindled to only a handful - five total in 1994, for example. It was at this point that the department decided that this situation was unacceptable and that the high school science students of the State of Illinois deserved better. There are many other contributing factors that led to this decision, including the desire to better prepare our PTE majors and the realization that science teaching was a growth field. Another motivation was partially self-serving - we reasoned that producing more and better secondary-level physics teachers would improve the quality, and potentially even the number of incoming freshmen in our own department.

While the number of physics majors was down across the nation in the mid-to-late 1990's, the Illinois State physics program held its own, even growing somewhat, to the extent that we were mentioned as one of the more successful departments in Ehrlich's 1998 article "Where are the physics majors?" (Ehrlich, 1998). We were invited, as an example of a successful program, to present at the conference on Revitalizing the Undergraduate Physics Curriculum in 1997, sponsored by the APS and AAPT. A significant contributor to this success was growth in the PTE program. Under new leadership, the program mushroomed such that by the fall 2005 semester it enrolled 40 physics teaching majors. The revised PTE program, briefly described in an earlier Forum on Education article (Wenning, 2001), was predicated on a number of "big ideas" that have guided the program through its development. Some of these ideas are presented here.

The re-emergence of the PTE program at ISU began with the hiring of a part-time PTE coordinator in 1994. The coordinator, a certified secondary high school physics teacher, was originally assigned the responsibility of running the PTE program as an adjunct to other existing duties. Being fully aware of the lack of physics teaching majors and the growing demand, a long-term effort was begun to develop a program that would attract more teacher candidates.

Beginning in 1994 four additional physics teaching methods courses were added to the PTE major. By 2001 the part-time coordinator had become full time, and PTE majors were taking six required physics teaching methods courses spanning 2.5 years and consisting of 12 semester hours. All six methods courses were described earlier in a Forum on Education Newsletter (Wenning, 2001). Up-to-date syllabi for each of these courses can be accessed online at This sequence of courses is logically related and strongly coordinated. All have in some way been influenced by the NSTA Standards for Science Teacher Preparation and the National Science Education Standards. Each has as its focus some aspect of inquiry-oriented physics teaching. The sequence provides a systematic and comprehensive treatment of secondary-level pedagogical practices and scientific inquiry processes (Wenning, 2005a).                       

Our seven-step sequence for teacher preparation includes the following foci (Wenning, 2005b): 1) introducing inquiry, 2) modeling inquiry, 3) promoting inquiry, 4) developing inquiry, 5) practicing inquiry, 6) deploying inquiry, and 7) supporting inquiry. Courses, including student teaching and first-year induction activities, continue as novice teachers advance to become more seasoned professionals.  Much of the development of the PTE program was based on an assessment of teacher needs. A detailed teacher knowledge base was established following a literature review, after conversations with in-service teachers, and employing the coordinator's experiences with science teaching. This periodically reviewed and updated teacher knowledge base provides impetus for ongoing development within the PTE program. The knowledge base, consisting of 18 discrete elements, spans a range from content, pedagogical, and pedagogical content knowledge, through active learning, classroom management, and the nature of science.

Additional attention has been paid to candidate recruitment and retention. Special concern is shown for the physics teacher "pipeline" that conducts graduating high school students back to the high school classroom as teachers following university graduation. The Illinois Section of the American Association of Physics Teachers has been very active in this area (Wenning, 2004), and has made a number of recommendations to help improve the process that the ISU PTE program is attempting to more fully implement. The ISU program is now working cooperatively with a number of professional societies within Illinois in an effort to increase the number of teacher candidates in all areas of science and mathematics.

The ISU Physics Department directly recruits students not only for the PTE sequence, but all four sequences within the major - physics, computational physics, engineering physics, and physics teaching. Efforts include personal letters to high school science teachers, personal contacts with prospective students such as phone calls by female majors to female applicants, a departmental scholarship program, and a growing outreach program consisting of Saturday fun physics presentations and hands-on programs, an annual "Expanding Your Horizons through Math and Science" program for middle school girls, participation with the local children's science museum and Challenger Learning Center, and a student-centered traveling outreach show instigated by a "Physics on the Road" grant.  However, underlying all these efforts is an underlying long-term effort to create better relationships with high school physics teachers.

Much of the recruitment for the Illinois State University PTE program is of this latter indirect variety. Goodwill generated through summer physics teacher workshops appears to be having a positive impact on enrollment. For instance, from 2001-2005 ISU was an AAPT/PTRA Rural Center offering summer professional development activities for teachers within about 100 miles of Normal, IL. During 2001, 2003, and 2005 grants were obtained to host two- and three-week-long Modeling Method of Physics workshops. Participating teachers, as well as ISU PTE program graduates, have been channeling PTE majors and other physics majors to ISU.  Combined with our other recruitment activities, we have seen strong growth in the teacher education program. Today it is not uncommon to see a dozen or more PTE majors enrolled in a single physics teaching methods course as a result of these and similar efforts. It is expected that some 18 PTE majors will graduate over the course of the next two spring semesters.

A fortunate set of circumstances appears to have allowed these improvements in the Illinois State PTE program, including:

1)               The PTE coordinator who took over the program in 1994 was: (a) passionately committed to improving the teacher preparation process,  (b) an certified secondary school teacher with knowledge of the teacher preparation process, (c) a dedicated teacher capable of modeling effective teaching for others, and (d) willing to learn the best practices and deal with the administrative details involved in the certification process.

2)               The coordinator was given the resources and release time necessary for properly educating teacher candidates, for incorporating external standards, and for participating in and providing professional development activities.

3)               Department chairpersons who, over more than ten years, recognized the importance of the PTE program and a physics faculty open to being educated in the ways and worth of physics teacher education and who frequently lent support to the coordinator's efforts.

These circumstances have been generalized into set of five change principles (Wenning 2003) applicable to building up similar programs at other institutions.

The success of our program is a synergistic effect of many contributors coordinated by a teacher education leader. There are no magic bullets here. We believe that the process can be replicated in any department ready to support such a project. The growth of our program has indeed aided our recruitment of physics majors in all degree sequences. It is not uncommon now to hear from new freshmen that they had one of our graduates as their high school physics teacher - and we would not be surprised if a recent increase in our incoming freshman ACT scores could be partially attributed to better physics education at the secondary level.

As a result of program improvement and both indirect and direct recruitment procedures, the number of majors in all sequences in physics at ISU currently exceeds 130. With 24 graduates this past year, the department remains one of the top ten producers of physics degrees from undergraduate-only departments, a distinction held since the late 1990's. Although we know of no national statistics, we suspect our average number of physics teacher graduates per year since 2000 would also rank us highly - perhaps an unfortunate comment on the current national shortage of physics teachers.


Ehrlich, R. (1998). Where are the physics majors? American Journal of Physics, 66(1), 79-86.

Wenning, C.J. (2002). Physics Teacher Education at Illinois State University, Forum on Education, American Institute of Physics, Summer Issue, June 2001. Available:

Wenning, C.J. (2003). Change principles for departmentally-based physics teacher education programs. Journal of Physics Teacher Education Online, 2(1), 7-12. Available:

Wenning, C.J. (2004). Repairing the Illinois high school physics teacher pipeline: Recruitment, preparation and retention of high school physics teachers ~ The Illinois model. Journal of Physics Teacher Education Online, 2(2), 24-32. Available:

Wenning, C.J. (2005a). Levels of inquiry: Hierarchies of pedagogical practices and inquiry processes. Journal of Physics Teacher Education Online, 2(3), 3-11. Available:

Wenning, C.J. (2005b). Implementing inquiry-based instruction in the science classroom: A new model for solving the improvement-of-practice problem. Journal of Physics Teacher Education Online, 2(4), 9-15. Available

Carl J. Wenning is Lecturer in Physics and Coordinator of the Physics Teacher Education Program at Illinois State University. Richard F. Martin, Jr. is Professor of Physics and Chair of the ISU Physics Department. Both can be reached at Campus Box 4560, Normal, IL  61790-4560 or 309-438-8756.




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