Benefits of collaboration between physics departments and schools of education

Julie Antilla-Garza, Chair of Undergraduate Teacher Education, Seattle Pacific University
Stamatis Vokos, Professor of Physics, Seattle Pacific University

In Transforming the Preparation of Physics Teachers: A Call to Action, the National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics (T-TEP) presented the robust finding1 that “[f]ew institutions demonstrate strong collaboration between physics departments and schools of education.” The significance of this finding lies partly in the realization that this statement is unsurprisingly consistent with the personal experience of most physics faculty. In the preparation of physics teachers, the usual approach is based on the stance that physics and education are non-overlapping magisteria.2 Prospective teachers learn their physics-y stuff in physics courses and then take education courses (including science methods courses), which are aimed at preparing students to teach undifferentiated “science” using general pedagogical strategies. And never the twain do meet — except of course in the unprepared teacher’s classroom. On a daily basis.

There are many reasons for this separation. First, most often physics and education belong to different administrative units and therefore have different reward structures within the university. Second, the corresponding guilds impose different methodologies, different technical language,3 and different lenses for analysis. Most significantly maybe, cross-campus collaborations require clear and compelling benefits for all partners. Absent a vision for what such benefits are or even might look like, dreams of collaboration are soon thwarted by vast increases in institutional entropy. To help give some shape to this vision, this article aims to highlight examples of productive collaboration between a physics department and a school of education.

We stress that the collaborative efforts described below are not good-for-the-soul service activities. Their core is located in the desire to prepare competent teachers of physics who can help students learn to think like physicists and to inspire them to seek to understand the world around us in a deeper sense. A physics department cannot do so by itself and neither can a school of education. The separation between content knowledge and pedagogy has profoundly negative implications for the physics enterprise. To quote the T-TEP report again, because “[p]hysics teacher education programs do little to develop the physics-specific pedagogical expertise of teachers” [Finding 5], T-TEP recommends that “[p]hysics teacher preparation programs should provide teacher candidates with extensive physics-specific pedagogical training and physics-specific clinical experiences. To accomplish this goal, physics and education faculty have to work closely together and leverage each other’s professional expertise.

Collaboration between physics and education faculty and staff at Seattle Pacific University goes back ten years. (See, for instance, articles in the Forum on Education Newsletter probing different aspects of the collaboration.4,5) However, as Melba Phillips quipped, “The problem with physics education problems is that they don’t stay solved.” The departure of two key figures who had played a major role in being the “glue” between physics and education, one in the physics department and one in the School of Education, brought about a slowdown in the common work. This situation changed just prior to the start of the school year in 2013 with an invitation from the physics department to the chairs and deans of the education departments into a conversation about strengthening cross-college partnerships in an effort to better the teacher preparation programs in the sciences. In October the physics faculty met with the chair of the undergraduate teacher education program to discuss current programs that support physics majors seeking a teaching certificate, and by mid-November representatives from the physics department, the undergraduate teacher education program, and the teacher certification program initiated a series of meetings to audit the course requirements in the undergraduate physics teacher preparation pathway.

The certification staff provided expert knowledge, research, and resources regarding graduation and course load requirements throughout December and January as the physics and education faculty met and corresponded by email. Together, this cross-section of faculty and staff from cross-campus departments constructed proposals for co-listing physics and education courses and applying certification prerequisites toward university required curriculum credits. This resulted in a proposal for a new pathway leading to a physics major with physics and math endorsements for undergraduate students.

In April of 2014, the physics professor who initiated the collaboration between the physics department and the school of education launched a second round of conversational meetings on physics teacher certification at Seattle Pacific University. Over the summer he worked with a small cohort of writers, and by September of this year, he challenged the faculty and deans in both the school of education and the physics department, as well as university administration, to work together to create a program that graduates beginning teachers “who have the research-informed disciplinary preparation and the discipline-specific pedagogical preparation to engage students in meaningful physics learning.”

As the 2014-2015 school year begins, both the undergraduate teacher education and the physics programs support the well-established Learning Assistant program designed to give students interested in teaching a hands-on leadership experience inside a physics classroom. Both programs support the proposals submitted at the university level to maximize the contribution each course makes toward graduation requirements. They both have their co-listed secondary methods course updated and ready for student advisement. And perhaps most importantly, the faculty and staff in these cross-campus programs have committed to continue working together to help develop a distributed Center for Physics Teacher Education to produce more and better-prepared physics teachers.

As stated above, these collaborative efforts between the physics department and the school of education at Seattle Pacific University were not good-for-the-soul service activities. They were initiated with the belief, and they continue under the consensus that, together we have the obligation and the privilege to prepare competent physics teachers.

Stamatis Vokos is chair of the National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics (T-TEP) and directs the Physics Education Research Group at Seattle Pacific University.

Julie Antilla-Garza is chair of undergraduate teacher education and an assistant professor at Seattle Pacific University. She worked in public schools for 16 years as a teacher and principal before earning her PhD and joining the SPU faculty.


1 Finding 4

2 With apologies to Stephen Jay Gould, who introduced the term in a completely different setting. The analogy with his context is apt, though the characterization is incorrect in both settings.

3 The fact that educational terminology sounds superficially familiar to the untrained ear can be an obstacle for communication. The term “self-adjoint density matrix” does not evoke everyday images whereas “cognitive apprenticeship” does. The dean of a College of Arts and Sciences, a geographer, told once a junior physics education researcher that his research articles on student understanding of special relativity were not as exciting as Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe.

4 Eleanor Close, “Leveraging Corporate Support for Science Education Reform at Seattle Pacific University,”

5 Lane Seeley and Stamatis Vokos, “Creating and Sustaining a Teaching and Learning Professional Community at Seattle Pacific University,”

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.