PhysTEC Program at the University of California, Davis

David Webb, Department of Physics, UC Davis

We are very pleased to be given the chance to build a new Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) site at UC Davis and we have several different kinds of goals in this work. The first goals are, of course, to increase our production of high school teachers credentialed in physics and to document that increase as well as the changes that made it possible and other changes that the program may have stimulated. A broader goal is to build, into both the faculty and the administrative culture at Davis, the idea that each of our academic departments (not just Physics) should be involved in the production of future teachers and involved in support of current teachers in northern California. Specifically, we hope to convince academic departments other than physics that this involvement must include not only teaching of the content knowledge that these teachers need (something we presumably already do) but, also, the pedagogical knowledge that will help these teachers teach content knowledge to their students. Finally, some of us dream of slowly growing a faculty who stay roughly as knowledgeable about research in teaching and learning as they do about research in their broad disciplinary fields. This would be an answer to the constant dilemma of how to improve university teaching without degrading research.

Regarding the second goal mentioned above, it is easy to point out to a group of faculty that all of our undergraduate classes would be easier, and more fun, to teach if our undergraduate students entered the university with a sophisticated understanding of what science is about as well as with an understanding of some of the major organizing ideas of science. This intellectual sophistication can only come from their having had excellent teachers in primary and secondary schools, so we can only make things better for ourselves and our students if we pay close attention to the quality of teachers that we are producing. If we can convince our faculty of this idea then all we need to do is demonstrate how this can be done with only moderate efforts from some of the faculty in these departments. This feasibility demonstration is some of what we hope our PhysTEC work will do for our own faculty. Our particular PhysTEC project will not be very different from other such sites but an understanding of the details of our particular implementation will require some background information on UC Davis in general, on our current efforts to increase the number of science teachers graduating from UCD, and on our introductory physics courses.

UC Davis has close to 25,000 undergraduate students and about 7500 graduate students making up a relatively ethnically diverse population with a large contingent in the sciences. As a quick example of the ethnic diversity, in a recent 10-year span our introductory physics course for bioscience majors was made up of about 37% of students identifying themselves as White/Caucasian, about 16% were students of Chinese descent, and the other (almost) half made up of many different ethnicities. The largest three other groups, at about 5% apiece, include students identifying themselves as of Mexican, Filipino, or Vietnamese descent. UC Davis began as an agricultural school in the early 1900’s and remains a strong school in the sciences.  The students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics disciplines at UC Davis are distributed among four colleges: College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, College of Engineering, College of Biological Sciences, and in the Mathematics and Physical Science Division of the College of Letters and Science.

The PhysTEC site currently being organized at UC Davis is planned as an extension of our already successful Math and Science Teacher (MAST) program at Davis. The MAST program is our campus’ version of the California Teach program which was begun in 2005 with a goal of producing an extra 1000 math and science teachers per year.  Our current MAST program consists of a series of three seminar classes that explore the foundations of learning and, in addition, offer supervised field experiences in either elementary, middle, or high school classrooms. These experiences include progressively more responsible opportunities for teaching K-12 students and give vitally important time for our students to explore their interest in teaching careers and to complete prerequisites for teaching credential programs.  Academic advising and recruiting are also essential elements of the MAST program. Our advising encourages students to keep career options open through appropriate choices of requirements and sequences of courses, and it also identifies alternate pathways to teaching careers for late-deciding students.  We recruit prospective teachers from among prospective and current students on campus and through local community colleges.  In addition, we are especially proud that over a dozen faculty, representing all the undergraduate colleges and the School of Education, advise our students and the program. This widespread interest and participation by the faculty is having a noticeable effect on the culture of our campus and gives us hope of achieving our broad goal of changing the general faculty and administrative culture toward producing teachers involvement in research into teaching. Enrollment in MAST has grown from 22 students in 2005-06 to a current level of over 400 students per year. In the past two academic years, twenty-one students have completed or enrolled in credential programs, twelve of them at UC Davis. Despite the broad success enjoyed by the program, only one or two physics majors have participated in an average year.

In an attempt to specifically encourage more physics students to think about teaching as a career, a significant part of the PhysTEC program at UC Davis will involve the building up of a larger “Learning Assistants” (LA) program within MAST in collaboration with the Department of Physics. The LAs will work in the discussion/lab sections of our introductory physics classes alongside the TAs and/or instructors in the class. This year we are modifying our introductory courses for engineers and physical science majors (the “calculus-based course”) so it is not currently the best class in which to place our LAs. So, in this first year of our PhysTEC implementation, we will only have LAs in our introductory physics series of courses for bioscience majors (our “algebra-based course”). The introductory series for bioscience majors is a radically reformed, large-enrollment, one-year, introductory physics series that makes student interaction in small groups the central instructional component. This series was fully implemented in 1996 and enrolls over 1500 students each quarter who are taught by ten faculty/instructors and 25 graduate teaching assistants (TAs). Each of the three courses employs a general course design scheme called Collaborative Learning through Active Sense-making in Physics (CLASP). The series of introductory physics courses for bioscience majors at UC Davis is Physics 7A, 7B, and 7C.

The goal of a CLASP course is to have students continually striving to make sense, for themselves, of fundamental physics concepts and widely-applicable analytical approaches to problems that will be useful to them in their careers. All aspects of the course are designed to further this goal.  Toward this end, the courses are organized around a set of about two dozen models that physicists use to describe the major features of how the world works. Of these models, it is probably fair to say that about a half dozen of them are the most important overarching models.  These models, and this organization of ideas, are prominent in all of the work that the students do.

A regular offering of a Physics 7 course at UC Davis includes a lecture which meets once a week for about 80 minutes (during which there is usually a 20 minute quiz) and a discussion/laboratory (DL) that meets 140 minutes twice a week and is run either by an instructor or by a TA. In the DLs, the students are mostly involved in intellectually intensive discussions (in small groups of about five students) concerned with either i) making sense of the physical models themselves or ii) using the models to make sense of various important physical situations. The discussions in DL are what places a CLASP class in the category of “active-learning” classes and these discussions are as student-centered as we have been able to make them. The students are given activity sheets that ask them about models and applications of models to simple physical situations, complex physical situations, and computer simulations. The discussions are facilitated by the instructor/TA who, ideally, uses some form of Socratic questioning to help each group of students figure things out for themselves whenever they get stuck. Our intent is that the pace of these small group discussions is completely controlled by the students and that the discussions are carried out primarily in the student’s voice even when an instructor is present. We provide instructors/TAs with guides for each activity, and some of these guides remind the instructor that they are supposed to be a “guide on the side” not a “sage on the stage”.

Students presenting work at blackboard in CLASP laboratory.

Students presenting work at blackboard in CLASP laboratory.

Figure 1 - Students presenting work at blackboard in CLASP laboratory.

CLASP courses differ from many reformed courses in that our students carry out their small-group discussions at blackboards and put (almost) all of their work on those blackboards as shown in Figure 1. This allows the instructor/TA to immediately determine the progress of each of the 6 small groups in the classroom. After a reasonable number of the small groups (half of them or more) have come to their conclusions about the activities, the instructor stops the small group discussions and leads a whole class discussion on the activity. Ideally, this whole class discussion is also carried out in the voice of the students (i.e. student-student discussions of the ideas). The whole class discussion at the end of an activity serves many instructional purposes. The whole class discussion attempts to leave each student, at a minimum, with a basic understanding of what ideas needed to be used in the activity, how they needed to be used, where these ideas fit into the field of physics, and how the ideas relate to other activities that they have done. The activity discussion format also gives our students a (somewhat) realistic view of how science proceeds. For instance, a whole class discussion may result in some groups advocating for one way of thinking about things and other groups advocating for another way (this is actually not uncommon when 5 or 6 groups work on their activities relatively independently) and then the discussion can bring out differing assumptions, differing viewpoints, and (of course) genuine conceptual misunderstandings. The whole class discussion also gives the students a chance to practice developing proper scientific discussions. We may even motivate the students to develop these skills by reminding them that they are practicing the argument skills that they will use on exams. This practice at generating proper scientific arguments in support of their conclusions should help their confidence on our exams but also their confidence in their other classes. Finally, although we have these many goals for whole-class discussions, we have found that facilitating good whole class discussions is perhaps the most difficult job for a teacher in a CLASP class.

Our initial plan for our new LAs is to have them work as assistant TAs during small-group discussion time in a CLASP course. The instructor/TA will be in charge of the DL but the LA will roam around the classroom and carry out Socratic dialogues as necessary with the individual small groups in the same way that the TA does. Because it is hard for a single TA to carefully monitor and help out 6 separate group discussions, it seems likely that the LAs will be found to be valuable in the DL setting. In addition, senior LAs will periodically be given the chance to take more control over a DL and essentially act as the instructor under the eye of the actual instructor/TA. Each LA will also participate in a one hour per week seminar on the pedagogy of the course including discussions of how people learn, how to facilitate small group discussions, how to facilitate whole class discussions, and specific issues that introductory physics students have. Later this year, we will hire our first Teacher In Residence (experienced high school teacher) to help mentor these LAs. In the long run, we hope to double or triple the number of our undergraduate students who receive physics teaching credentials, and to begin to make progress on the broader and longer term goals mentioned in the first paragraph.

David Webb earned Physics degrees from UC Berkeley ('77) and Univ. of Maryland ('83) and did postdoctoral work at Stanford.  He has been a faculty member in the Dept. of Physics at UC Davis since 1987 and is currently doing research in Physics Education.

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.