Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Spring 2006 Newsletter



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Graduating Educated Graduate Students

Edward Price
Department of Physics
California State University, San Marcos

Noah Finkelstein
Department of Physics          
University of Colorado at Boulder

Academia appears to do a remarkable job at producing the next generation of research faculty. The long-anticipated shortage of well-qualified researchers has not appeared1. At the same time, while there are calls to reform educational practices in college and university classrooms, we are not broadly preparing our future faculty to develop or implement these now well-understood research-based educational practices.

The relative emphasis of research and teaching in the preparation of future physicists is symptomatic of the asymmetry between research and teaching in the practice of current physicists, in the attitudes and beliefs of physicists, and in the hiring and promotion practices at the most prestigious physics departments. The physics community at-large considers teaching and research to be separate endeavors: the generation of new understanding (research) and the transmission of old understanding (teaching). In this view, the practice of teaching and research share little more than physics content and do not inform one another. In contrast, recent efforts in physics education suggest an alternate characterization of teaching (or learning); learning is the generation of understanding that is new to the student. In this view, teaching and research complement, support, and enrich one another. Furthermore, by taking teaching and learning as the focus of scholarly activity, we place teaching and research on equal footing. Extending this point of view, we propose a vision of the profession where education is part of the core conception of being a physicist, and we focus on graduate school as a critical experience in the preparation of future physicists. Graduate education is a key point of leverage as we attempt to integrate teaching and education research into the broader physics culture.

During graduate school, physicists engage in authentic research experiences, but most often there is no corresponding apprenticeship regarding teaching and learning2, 3. By definition, graduate preparation occurs in an institutional context of Ph.D. granting universities. This context informs the goals and practices of graduate students and faculty, but our traditional preparation may be a mismatch for graduates bound for institutional settings with other goals and practices. We do not dispute the need for institutions that emphasize research, but wish to emphasize that the minority of graduate students become faculty at institutions similar to those in which they were trained2, 4,5,6. Such a focused emphasis on research to the exclusion of other professional characteristics has consequences for the entire physics community. By extending the focus of physics graduate school to include structured attention to education, we may begin to give education greater prominence and validate education research and reform in physics, by physicists. In this way, we can begin to shift the culture of physics to include education in the core practice of physicists.

Relatively recent efforts have started to attend to the development of graduate students more broadly - to support their development as educators and professionals in physics - and to support the development of the growing field of physics education research (PER).  While there are many excellent model programs which support the development of graduate students, as TAs, as professional actors within physics, and in PER, we examine two programs as University of Colorado and University of California, which are designed to couple and to address each of these graduate roles.

Preparing Future Physics Faculty

In 1998, the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) funded Preparing Future Physics Faculty (PFPF), a graduate program designed to augment traditional training in research. PFPF was a discipline-specific version of Preparing Future Faculty, a program initiated by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Association of American Colleges and Universities7. PFPF and PFF were responses to calls for increased emphasis on preparation in the areas of teaching and professional development by the Association of American Universities and the National Academy of Sciences8, 9. The University of California, San Diego was one of the sites chosen for a PFPF program. One of the authors [NF] was involved with establishing the program; the other [EP] is a former participant and director. The program ran with external support until 2000, and has since continued with the support of the physics department and UCSD's campus-wide Center for Teaching Development.

Initially, the PFF/PFPF program was intended to reshape graduate preparation to "produce students who are well prepared to meet the needs of institutions that hire new faculty" by including an emphasis on teaching and professional development7. Over the eight years of its existence, the UCSD instantiation of the program has undergone substantial changes and evolved to address four goals:

·        Preparing graduate students for their future responsibilities as educators by promoting awareness and understanding of PER;

·        Raising awareness of differences in the needs and opportunities at different academic institutions (i.e., community colleges, bachelor's granting institutions, and regional and research universities);

·        Providing physics graduate students with professional and career development in areas such as conducting a job search and writing grant proposals;

·        Creating an environment where physics graduate students discuss issues in the physics community.

Graduate students participating in PFPF attend weekly (or bi-weekly) seminars on topics relating to the goals discussed above. In addition to weekly seminars, graduate students are encouraged to participate in a range of practice-based activities: researching, developing curricula, and teaching. Research projects include graduate students engaging in PER-based studies of local practice (such as examining instructor beliefs about teaching). Curricular development often takes the form of graduate students appropriating PER-based activities and adopting them for local practice - for example, graduate students have augmented the complement of Interactive Lecture Demonstrations10 (ILDs) running in the introductory sequence by building an RC circuit ILD (and testing its effectiveness in the algebra-based course). Finally, teaching practice is heavily emphasized. All students are encouraged to conduct a 5-10 minute micro-teach (presenting a single topic to the rest of the PFPF seminar). Subsequently, students engage in observations and guest lectures in local introductory courses and at partner institutions (community and teaching colleges). Ultimately, several students have become instructors- of- record, taking responsibility for designing and implementing a full term class at these partner institutions. All of these activities are supervised both locally by the PFPF supervisors and at the host institutions by practicing faculty. These activities ground the seminar discussions in practical experience, making both more meaningful. The scope of engagement (ranging from guest lecturing to teaching a course as instructor-of-record) depends on the participant's interests and constraints. Guest lecturing is valuable experience with a small time commitment. On the other hand, teaching a course provides a more comprehensive experience but is a demanding undertaking. Our most successful participant activities combine the best of both approaches by including a group planning component and a modular workload. By involving multiple participants, these programs achieve a significant impact, yet require only modest effort from individual graduate students.

The program's tiered-participation model has been remarkably robust through several changes in program leadership. We attribute this to three essential features: the involvement of a program organizer, sustained graduate student interest in the issues addressed by the program, and a flexible format that allows the program to reflect the participants' and organizer's interests. Except for modest funding, official administrative support has not been essential, and in fact has lagged behind the bottom-up support for the program. (Three years ago, participation in the program was officially recognized as fulfilling the departmental teaching requirement; this year, for the first time, the department officially recognized the organizer's effort by granting teaching relief.) Following the initial framework developed at UCSD, NF implemented a PFPF program two years ago at the University of Colorado.[1]  The model's central framing - voluntary participation of graduate students in tiered levels of participation - has remained the same.  More on the UCSD program can be found at and the CU program at

Teaching and Learning Physics.

Complementing the PFPF program is another model for incorporating educational issues in graduate preparation - a course in teaching and learning physics that provides an intensive focus on physics education and physics education research. Intended for graduate students more focused on the study of education, the course is formalized institutionally through course credit; in contrast, the PFPF program exists as a voluntary activity with little institutional reward for graduate students. Initially developed in 1998 at UCSD and subsequently implemented in 2003 at CU, the physics course Teaching and Learning Physics is structured around three central components: study of pedagogical issues (cognitive, psychological, educational), study of physics content, and practical experience teaching in the community (both in local community and within the University).  Each of these course components complements the others by providing a differing perspective on the same area of inquiry.  For example, the same week that students read studies documenting individuals' difficulties with the electric field, the students study the concept itself, and teach it to others.  This model has been demonstrated to increase student mastery of physics, proficiency at teaching, and the likelihood that students engage in future teaching experiences11. This course attracts students to physics from all demographic backgrounds, increases the number of physics majors enrolling in teacher education, and builds strong and sustainable ties between the university and community partners. 

            Particularly relevant, the course on teaching and learning physics engages students in research activities throughout - applying tools of science to education.  Student projects in the course allow them to view the practices of education, teaching and learning as scholarly pursuits.  The resultant projects have spanned from developing after-school programs that increase younger students' interest and acuity in physics, to programs that study the role of gender in the classroom.  Several of these projects have led to published work12, 13, while others have led to the creation of community partnerships that would not have otherwise existed (such as the CU STOMP program or UCSD's Fleet University). Other student research and teaching efforts have been instrumental in the implementation of educational reforms spurred by faculty at the university.  For example, at CU, in order to implement Tutorials in Introductory Physics14 in our undergraduate courses, we required an increased teacher: student ratio.  Students from the course on teaching and learning physics provided critical human resources, while the Tutorials provided real world examples of educational reforms that graduate students could study. Each of these activities provides students the opportunity to engage in authentic educational practices, while also sending the message that these activities are part of a physicist's pursuits.

Outcomes and Discussion:

In the broadest sense, PFPF and Teaching and Learning Physics represent attempts to address, through graduate preparation, the asymmetry between teaching and research by more fully including education in the core practice of physicists. While it should be clear that affecting students' choices and preparation is a long-term endeavor, we may assess the preliminary impact of these programs. First, it is worth considering whether students choose to participate in these voluntary programs. In the graduate program, participation has increased since its inception; starting with fewer than ten students, the UCSD program now regularly supports twenty to twenty-five students.  Over the five to six year period of graduate studies, a student is about as likely to participate in PFPF as not. In the CU version of PFPF, average attendance is roughly thirty graduate students and over 100 individuals have participated.  In the course, Teaching and Learning Physics, ten to fifteen students have participated annually since its inception at UCSD, and in its first offering at CU, 23 students enrolled. Graduate students are clearly interested in engaging the issues addressed in these programs, and there are few other outlets for this interest2.

As measured by surveys of the participants, each of these programs has been successful at building bridges between physics and education, and infusing physics education research into traditional practices in physics. We have surveyed PFPF participants on their attitudes about the importance of teaching and what they have learned from the program15. While 18% feel education it valued by the physics research community, 94% of PFPF participants plan on incorporating the results of PER in their own teaching. Furthermore, former participants who are now teaching report following through on these intentions.  Students enrolled in the course on teaching and learning physics report it to be among their most favored and useful courses. Evaluation of student understanding of education reveal a shift from the more transmissionist perspectives to a more progressive, constructivist perspective11. The course model has been employed elsewhere, and colleagues have conducted versions of this course at five different research institutions.

Implementing these programs requires little more than a motivated, capable person and modest institutional support; considering the impact, both programs are relatively easy to implement. They are independent and modular, but seemingly at their best when the programs form a mutually-supportive continuum of increasing level of engagement, allowing students to participate at a level they find appropriate. Interactions between the programs lead to benefits for both; for instance, PFPF creates a pool of students interested in further study, while Teaching and Learning Physics creates 'expert' participants that enrich PFPF discussions and activities. Institutional support is ensured by broad student interest, the value of the programs' "products" (curriculum development, instructional reform), and the benefits to the graduate participants. 


We have described two activities designed to broaden physics graduate students' conception of and preparation for their profession by focusing on education and education research. These efforts are part of a broader goal of including education as an essential part of what it means to "be a physicist". Our experience suggests that through participation in these programs, graduate students come to value education more deeply as a core practice of physicists. More broadly, these programs can lead to similar shifts in local culture. While it is not certain that these shifts will be sustained, by creating layered and complementary programs these changes are more robust. Though many graduate program reforms have the intent of changing the preparation of graduate students in order to support the changing job market, it may turn out that graduate students involved in the programs described above will change the nature of the discipline.

1              Committee on Science Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP), Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers, National Academy Press, (2000)

2              C.M. Golde and T.M. Dore, At Cross Purposes:  What the experiences of doctoral students reveal about doctoral education, The Pew Charitable Trusts, (2001)

3              E. Price and N.D. Finkelstein, Seeding Change: The Challenges of Transfer and Transformation of Educational Practice and Research in Physics (Part I), in 2004 Physics Education Research Conference (AIP Publishing, 2004)

4              K. Adams, What colleges and universities want in new faculty, Association of American Colleges and Universities, (2002)

5              C. Langer and P.J. Mulvey, Initial Employment Report: Physics and Astronomy Degree Recipients of 2002 & 2003, American Institute of Physics, Statistical Research Center, (2005)

6              R. Ivie, S. Guo, and A. Carr, 2004 Physics & Astronomy Academic Workforce Report, American Institute of Physics, Statistical Research Center, (2005)

7              A. S. Pruitt-Logan, J.G. Gaff, and J.E. Jentoft, Preparing Future Faculty in the Sciences and Mathematics: A Guide for Change, Association of American Colleges and Universities, (2002)

8              Committee on Graduate Education, Report and recommendations, Association of American Universities, (1998)

9              Committee on Science Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP), Reshaping the education of scientists and engineers, National Academy Press, (1995)

10             D.R. Sokoloff and R.K. Thornton, The Physics Teacher 35, 340 (1997).

11             N.D. Finkelstein, Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning  (2004).

12             N.S. Podolefsky and N.D. Finkelstein, in The Physics Teacher, Vol. to appear.

13             K.K. Perkins, M.M. Gratny, W.K. Adams, N.D. Finkelstein, and C.E. Wieman, Towards characterizing the relationship between students' self-reported interest in and their surveyed beliefs about physics, in Physics Education Research Conference (PERC) (AIP Press, 2005)

14             L.C. McDermott and P.S. Schaffer, Tutorials in Introductory Physics (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2002).

15             E. Price and N.D. Finkelstein, Seeding Change: The Challenges of Transfer and Transformation of Educational Practice and Research in Physics (Part II), in 2004 Physics Education Research Conference (AIP Publishing, 2004)

[1] It is worth noting that of the four original sites, two (University of Arkansas and UCSD) have operated continuously, and a third (University of Colorado) was restarted after a hiatus.



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