Support for High School Physics Teachers through the Alabama Science in Motion Program

Paul Helminger


Since 1994, Alabama has funded a statewide high school science initiative in physics, chemistry, and biology which is centered on a network of traveling vans. The Alabama Science in Motion (ASIM) program provides public high school students with laboratory experiences with modern instrumentation and offers teachers professional development opportunities through workshops and mentoring links with university faculty. Three ASIM vans dedicated to physics, chemistry, and biology operate in each of the 11 teacher in-service regions, and these are administered through state universities in that region. Each van is driven by a certified science teacher who serves as the Discipline Specialist. Typically, the vans are equipped with more than $100K of laboratory instrumentation and serve 30 regional high school classes. The ASIM program became the high school science component of the Alabama Math and Science Initiative (AMSTI) in 2000. AMSTI is a comprehensive statewide program for improving math and science education in Alabama for students in grades K-12.

A project director is responsible for the administration of the ASIM program at each site. The project directors at most ASIM sites are affiliated with university in-service centers or with dean’s offices. It is interesting that the project directors directly affiliated with university science departments (at Alabama-Birmingham, Alabama-Huntsville, Auburn, and South Alabama) are all physics faculty members.  This is a clear indication of the willingness of the university physics community to get involved with worthwhile educational outreach projects. In this article I will discuss the ways that high school physics teachers benefit from being a part of the ASIM program.

The Current Classroom Situation

The introduction section of the 2007-08 Report to the Alabama Legislature on ASIM provides a summary of the science education situation in our state:
Science is a discipline rooted in experimentation. Learning science requires an understanding of the scientific method that is acquired through “hands-on,” “minds-on” laboratory activity. Equipment, knowledge of content, knowledge of teaching strategies, and preparation time are essential elements of effective science teaching. Unfortunately, all four are frequently lacking in the science classrooms of Alabama. Few schools have the equipment and supplies needed to run an effective laboratory program. Like most teachers, science teachers teach multiple subjects during the day. Running a laboratory component for each of these different subjects requires additional preparation time that most teachers do not have. It is difficult to conduct laboratory activities when equipment, knowledge, and time are inadequate.

Another difficulty is that while the majority of high school physics, chemistry, and biology teachers in Alabama are certified in science education, many are teaching out of their specific field of training. This is particularly true in physics. The ASIM program provides services that offer a remedy to the situation. The program also encourages active cooperation among the secondary science teachers, the university science education faculty, and the natural sciences faculty to improve the overall quality of science education in each region of the state.

Addressing Physics Classroom Needs

The Physics Specialist at each site is the point of contact with the ASIM high school physics teachers. The Physics Specialist usually works closely with a physics faculty coordinator at the site who helps with concepts, developing laboratory experiments, and teacher workshops. The Discipline Specialists across Alabama meet several times a year to address a variety of program issues. As a result of these meetings, two levels of laboratory experiments (Level I and Level II) with approximately 20 experiments at each level have been identified. These core laboratories, covering the standard topics in the physics curriculum, are offered at each site along with a small number of other experiments. The equipment for the experiments includes laptop computers, Pasco interface units with sensors, carts and tracks, electricity breadboard kits, projectile launchers, rotational motion apparatus, and optics kits.

A physics teacher joining ASIM is required to attend 10 days of Summer Institute training in the Level I labs. This acquaints the teacher with the equipment and the physics fundamentals behind the most important core experiments. Teachers are paid a stipend to attend summer workshops. At the workshops, teachers form groups to perform the experiments and to discuss how best to teach both the background material and the laboratories. The experiments include a separate “teacher-notes” section explaining the principles behind the lab. At the high school, the Physics Specialist may completely teach the experiment, assist the classroom teacher with instruction, or drop off the equipment for the teacher to use in an upcoming class.

An additional 10 days of Summer Institute training in the Level II experiments are also required. The Level II experiments are typically more difficult and are not as frequently used. The more experienced ASIM teachers (Level III teachers) as well as university physics faculty members are often called upon to assist with Level I and Level II workshops. Limited workshop training is also offered to ASIM teachers during the school year. The topics for these workshops will vary depending on the site. They may include discussion of new or lesser used labs, special topics in physics, teaching methods, and lecture demonstrations. Level III teachers are required to attend at least one day of ASIM workshops each year.

Final Comments

The fact that nearly 70% of the physics teachers in the public high schools of Alabama voluntarily participate in ASIM attests to the effectiveness of the program. In preparation for writing this article, I asked physics teachers for comments about ASIM. I received a number of very positive responses and will conclude with one teacher’s comments:

I am in my second year of teaching, and first year of teaching physics. I also have 5 different other classes to teach that I have no experience teaching. I am highly qualified in biology, so physics is not my strong point. I am at a very rural school with very little supplies. ASIM has allowed me to gain content knowledge, get advice from experienced physics teachers, gain access to lab supplies, and receive the much needed support and encouragement I need with six new preps. The program also allows me to spend my already limited classroom funds on other things since I have access to lab supplies from ASIM. I wish that my education classes in college would have been designed more like the ASIM workshops. They are so beneficial and informative since you cover content and methods of teaching. My students and I have both thoroughly enjoyed ASIM and will use it very frequently in the upcoming years.
Obviously, there is a very great need for outreach from the university physics community to high school physics teachers.

Paul Helminger is Professor of Physics at the University of South Alabama and Project Director for that ASIM site. For more information on AMSTI/ASIM you may contact him at, or visit

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 APS.