The PhysTEC Project at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

Jay Wang, Stephen Witzig, Grant O’Rielly, and Alan Hirshfeld, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

Background and departmental profile. We are a relatively small Physics Department at UMass Dartmouth, offering both BS and MS degrees. The number of physics Bachelor's degrees awarded ranges approximately from 5 to 10 per year, with an average of about 7, slightly above the national average for Master-granting departments of our size according to the American Institute of Physics (AIP) survey data (AIP Statistical Research). The number of Master's degrees conferred typically varies around 6 to 8 per year, placing the Physics Department consistently among the most productive of Master-granting departments in the country by the AIP data. While most graduates from both the bachelors and masters programs go on to Ph.D programs, we see a small but consistent fraction of undergraduate, and a somewhat larger fraction of master’s students, choosing to become high school physics teachers. Historically, the majority of these students found alternative pathways towards teaching after seeking preliminary or emergency licenses.

With the PhysTEC recruiting grant, our focus is to increase the number of qualified physics teachers through targeted recruiting and streamlined pathways for teacher preparation. The overall goal is to attract students to physics teaching by moving away from an ad-hoc basis by developing a better-defined pathway towards licensure. Of course, these changes are not completely altruistic. Like many small physics departments, despite the data showing that we perform above national averages by most metrics, we are still under pressure from campus administrators to grow our programs. To that end, we have been intensifying our efforts to increase the number of physics majors by reforming the physics curriculum and adding a new astronomy-astrophysics option. The PhysTEC project is a natural expansion of our continuing effort to grow both the number of physics majors as well as the base from which to recruit physics teachers.

The PhysTEC project. It is with this background that we embarked on the current project (from 2014 to 2017). The project is a collaborative effort between the Physics Department and the STEM Education & Teacher Development (STEM ED & TD) Department. We are fortunate to have a close working relationship with an enthusiastic STEM ED & TD faculty, stemming from partnerships in various prior projects. This project has the following major components.

Streamlined pathways: We proposed that the Physics and STEM ED & TD Departments work together to streamline the pathways to becoming a fully licensed physics teacher in a five-year program. Previously, physics graduates would enter teaching after graduation and through alternative routes. We put concerted effort into aligning the BS & MS programs with a formal plan of study which leads to Physics BS/MATi (4+1 pathway) degrees. This carefully designed, intentional program replaces the ad-hoc routes students have previously taken.

We have established the Physics BS/MATi as a 5-year pathway between the Physics and STEM ED & TD Departments where undergraduate Physics majors can take 15 credits towards their 30 credit MATi starting in their junior year. These credits count toward both their BS in Physics and their MATi. The 4+1 pathway leverages existing physics courses on teaching pedagogies and other related electives so that students can take courses to suit their individual interests. After the 5-year Physics BS/MATi program, a student will be well prepared in both physics content and education courses to be a highly qualified and certified Physics teacher. It should also be noted that the students in this 4+1 program complete the full complement of undergraduate physics courses and could, if they wished, continue into a graduate program in physics after completing the BS degree.

Recruiting strategies: Empirical data show that about 10-15% of physics students nationwide become physics teachers. To increase teacher production, recruitment is broadly directed at increasing the base population of Physics majors and therefore the number of potential teachers from that base.

Dartmouth photo

Figure 1. A SNEPA meeting and the TIR (right) engaging participants in a physics demo.

For high school students, the plan includes working with University Admissions to more aggressively market our physics programs, including the 4+1 pathway, and highlighting this program to prospective students during University open houses. We are also implementing some successful recruiting strategies that were highlighted at the 2015 PhysTEC Seattle conference and workshops. To bring awareness of the program to high school students via outreach programs, we have made a conscious effort to connect with local high school physics and science teachers, attend meetings and conventions of Massachusetts science educators and affiliates, and publicize our teacher preparation programs. An integral part of our outreach effort is the Southeastern New England Physics Alliance (SNEPA), which we resurrected as a part of the PhysTEC project. Most SNEPA participants are high school physics teachers who share both their best practices and their challenges in physics teaching (see Figure 1). They are ideal ambassadors for our recruitment effort. Two SNEPA meetings were held in year one of the grant; these were well received and attended.

For the students already on campus, the plan targets students taking the introductory physics courses (approx. 500 per semester), especially the engineering undecided students, by encouraging them to consider options in physics (major or minor), including the 4+1 pathway. The project faculty and teacher in residence (TIR) visit each of the classes and use supporting career data to make a pitch about the benefits of physics and physics teaching. The physics majors are made aware of the 4+1 pathway through individual advising and personal interactions. Once accepted into the 4+1 program, typically at the end of the sophomore year, the student will be assigned a second advisor in the STEM ED & TD Department who advises the student through the graduate portion of their program. This co-advising model is designed to support the students toward Physics teacher licensure.

Teacher in residence: Previous PhysTEC sites (see have shown that the teacher in residence (TIR) is a key component in the success of teacher preparation programs. Our project has a part-time TIR who is an experienced, enthusiastic, and distinguished teacher from the South Coast region of Massachusetts. The TIR is a vital presence in the Physics Department and a resource for aspiring teachers by engaging with physics students interested in physics teaching, speaking to the students in our Freshman Seminar and Teaching Pedagogy courses, as well as visiting the introductory physics classes to speak about the wonder, reward, and challenges of being a physics teacher. The TIR has also been heavily involved in the local science organizations and outreach activities such as the SNEPA (Figure 1).

Success and challenges. We have just completed Year 1 of the PhysTEC project. We have formalized the 4+1 Physics BS/MATi pathway program; generated awareness among current students that physics teaching can be a rewarding career path and is one that is in high demand; created a supportive environment between the TIR and physics students; and increased the connection and presence of the Physics program in surrounding communities through various outreach activities. We have already attracted three students into teaching and the 4+1 program.

We still face some challenges, including the fine-tuning of our recruiting strategies to increase the base number of physics majors. We are also seeking additional financial resources, including further grant proposals (such as a substantial Noyce proposal recently submitted), to support students interested in physics teaching. These resources would help fund our project, specifically the Learning Assistant program, which places students in physics classrooms in support roles.

We are encouraged by the success of our efforts to date, which was made possible by the support of the PhysTEC recruiting grant.  We look forward to working with each of our student recruits as they progress on the pathway to becoming physics teachers, and we also value the contribution that our in-service physics teachers, including our TIR, play in this effort.

Jay Wang, PhD in theoretical physics, is an associate professor in the Physics Department. His research interests are in atomic and computational physics. He is the author of a new textbook “Computational modeling and visualization of physical systems with Python,” (Wiley, 2015).

Stephen Witzig, PhD in science education, is an assistant professor in the STEM Education & Teacher Development Department. He conducts research in teaching science, scientific practices, and bridging research relationships among scientists, classroom teachers, and science teacher educators.

Grant O’Rielly, PhD in experimental physics, is an associate professor and chair of the Physics Department. His research interests are in the area of Intermediate Energy Photonuclear Physics, with special emphasis on few-body nuclear physics and pion photoproduction.

Alan Hirshfeld, PhD in astronomy, is a professor in the Physics Department. He conducts research in the history of physics and astronomy. He is the author of several highly acclaimed books including “Starlight Detectives: How Astronomers, Inventors, and Eccentrics Discovered the Modern Universe,” (Bellevue Literary Press, 2014)

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.