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CU Physics Education: Recruiting and Preparing Future Physics Teachers

Noah Finkelstein, Michael Dubson, Christopher Keller, Steven Pollock, Steve Iona, and Valerie Otero

Over the past several years, the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder) has dramatically expanded its efforts to recruit and nurture the highest caliber future high school physics teachers. With the formation of the Physics Education Research Group at Colorado (PER@C)1, the STEM-Colorado Teacher Preparation program2 , and the newly initiated Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC)3, CU-Boulder has brought together faculty and students from the Department of Physics and School of Education to partner with local pre-college teachers, informal science educators, and K-12 students.4 This collaboration has provided a rich venue for research, support for local communities and classrooms, and a coordinated recruitment, preparation and induction program for future K-12 teachers. One of the hallmarks of the CU-Boulder program is the notion that the preparation of future physics teachers begins in the physics department. Not only do undergraduate students have the opportunity to engage in teaching experiences early in their studies, but also this approach emphasizes the modeling of best teaching practices in the undergraduate physics courses. Thus, we purposefully blend the mastery of physics content, pedagogy, and authentic practice.

Several CU-Boulder programs provide students the opportunity to engage in structured educational experiences to develop a comprehensive understanding of physics teaching and to engage in teaching opportunities. As part of an NSF-sponsored course reform effort3, we have introduced Tutorials in Introductory Physics5 into the physics-majors’ sequence, and observed increased student mastery of content and improved attitudes and beliefs about the subject and educational process.6 The success of the reforms has required additional staffing of the Tutorials which has been supplied in the form of undergraduate Learning Assistants (LAs). LAs come from two pools, the STEM-Colorado Program (described below) and a new upper-division/ graduate-level physics course, Teaching and Learning Physics. Thus, this increased demand for staff has provided an opportunity to introduce capable students to teaching. Two programs, STEM-Colorado, and Colorado PhysTEC support these efforts through strong partnerships with local high school teachers, a Teacher Advisory Group and a Teacher –in –Residence program.

The PhysTEC-Colorado Program has been able to build on STEM-Colorado’s collaborative program involving several departments at the University of Colorado focused on Teacher Preparation. The goals of STEM-Colorado include reforming introductory undergraduate courses to include student and learning centered approaches, enhance the use of technology within the courses, and utilize trained undergraduates to assist the instructors in facilitating student learning. These Learning Assistants are undergraduate students with a strong content background who have an interest in teaching. During the semester, these LAs are awarded a stipend to work 10hrs / week` with the lead instructors in the courses (Astronomy, Physics, Applied Mathematics, Biology) and with faculty from the School of Education. As part of the STEM-Colorado and PhysTEC grants, a high school science teacher is supported part-time to work with the education faculty to help introduce the LAs to educational issues, learning theory, instructional techniques, and experiences working in K-12 schools. As part of an associated course LA’s receive course credit in the School of Education.

The program has been quite successful in attracting candidates into the teacher licensure programs at the university. In three semesters of the program, 13 Learning Assistants from participating departments in mathematics and science have committed to becoming teachers and are enrolled in a certification program at CU-Boulder. Most of these students did not initially intend to become teachers. The School of Education typically recommends an average of approximately 20 mathematics and science students for certification each year. This program provides the LAs with a supportive environment to investigate, develop, and practice their teaching skills. Therefore, the Learning Assistants practice and develop skills in a learner-centered environment and are monitored by science and educational faculty. Our undergraduate LA’s consistently report the experience as a strongly positive one, and the word has spread; applications for LA’s outnumber positions 3:1 in physics and the program is attracting some of our best undergraduates who would not have otherwise considered a career in pre-college teaching.

The community has grown to include summer workshop experiences for local high school teachers. During our first Summer Workshop about 20 teachers participated in sessions that allowed the university faculty to showcase their reformed courses and share web-based resources that have been developed. The high school teachers described some of their experiences with state testing and the impact of content standards on their schools. More importantly though, the workshop provided a forum for high school and university teachers to share experiences and learn more about the challenges facing each group.

The PhysTEC-Colorado Program has capitalized on these experiences by incorporating some of the summer workshop teachers as well as other invitees to form a PhysTEC Teacher Advisory Group (TAG). The group meets quarterly in the late afternoon for about 3 hours. Discussion topics have included facility tours, curricula, implementation of novel computer simulations from the Physics Education Technology Project (PhET)7, and employment options within the Teacher-in-Residence and PhysTEC Fellows program. The TAG provides regular communication with a cadre of high school faculty in several surrounding school districts, it enlightens the CU Physics faculty about “life in high schools,” and it expands the network of concerned physics educators. A critical component of the TAG program is that it serves as a starting point for placing students in productive and engaging K-12 environments. Students get a positive and safe exposure to real pre-college classrooms, while teachers benefit from the added human resources and content expertise of the college students. These TAG teachers have formed the nucleus of school-based contacts for the semester projects for students enrolled in the Teaching and Learning Physics class.

In the first semester of the university-high school partnerships with the TAG, we have established placements for students in half a dozen schools (placing student for teaching experience), informal science environments (from science outreach workshops to the planetarium), and teacher in-service professional development opportunities. Finally, it is through the TAG that we will recruit teachers and increase teacher participation at CU-Boulder. Currently we are interviewing teachers for next year’s Teacher-in-Residence Position (TIR) as well as a PhysTEC Fellows program. The TIR will continue to support campus-based efforts and liaisons with local schools, while the Fellows program will house two teachers for one month at CU-Boulder to work with the PER@C group and promote university– community collaboration.

More information may be found at in the reference to the PhysTEC [3], CU Physics Education Research Group [1], Colorado STEM [2], and the Department of Physics8.


1) The Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)- Colorado Program: http://cosmos.colorado.edu/stem; National Science Foundation Grant DUE-0302134

2) http://phystec.colorado.edu/

3) NSF, Course Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement Program, #0410744

4) These efforts build on longstanding commitments to education at CU, including the Wizards Program, the Saturday Physics Series, CU Science Discovery, and the pioneering work of many scholars including Frank Oppenheimer, Al Bartlett, John Taylor, and many others. [[1]] http://per.colorado.edu

5) McDermott, L.C. and Schaffer, P.S., (1998). Tutorials in Introductory Physics (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall).

6) Pollock, S.J. “No Single Cause: Learning Gains, Student Attitudes, and the Impacts of Multiple Effective Reforms” Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings 2004; Finkelstein, N.D. and Pollock S.J. , “Replicating and Understanding Successful Innovations: study of a secondary implementation of Tutorials in Introductory Physics,” in preparation.

7) http://phet.colorado.edu

8) http://colorado.edu/physics

Noah Finkelstein, Michael Dubson, Christopher Keller and Steven Pollock are in the Department of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Steve Iona is STEM- Colorado /PhysTEC Teacher-in-Residence. Valerie Otero is in the School of Education, University of Colorado at Boulder