Towson University PhysTEC Project

Dr. Cody Sandifer and Dr. Ronald Hermann
Towson University

The Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) project, founded in 2001, is a nationwide project that has funded 26 universities to improve and promote the education of future physics teachers. At these sites, physics faculty, education faculty, and a full-time teacher in residence (TIR) work together to improve secondary physics education programs.

From 2004-2008, Towson University (TU) was an elementary education-focused PhysTEC site, and received an American Association of Physics Teachers Presidential Citation Award for Teacher Preparation for its elementary education efforts. In 2010, Towson University rejoined the national PhysTEC project to focus on the retention, recruitment, and mentoring of physics secondary education majors.

The purpose of this article is to summarize the project goals, activities, successes, and ongoing challenges from Towson’s 2010-2013 secondary education PhysTEC project.

Project Personnel

The directors of the current TU PhysTEC project are Dr. Ronald Hermann and Dr. Cody Sandifer, both of whom are faculty in Towson’s Department of Physics, Astronomy & Geosciences (PAGS). The project has the full support of Dr. David Schaefer, our department chair. Dr. Hermann is a former high school science teacher from Harford County, Maryland, who graduated from Morgan State University and joined Towson as a secondary education faculty member in 2009; Dr. Sandifer, a science educator who has his roots in San Diego State University’s joint doctoral program (with UC San Diego), co-directed the original TU elementary PhysTEC project and has focused on K-16 science curricula and inquiry-based teaching methods since coming to Towson in 2001.

Towson’s 2010-2012 PhysTEC TIR was Mr. Jim Selway, who had been a high school physics teacher in Baltimore County for 35 years. Mr. Selway continues to work with the PAGS department as a volunteer to sustain his previous TIR accomplishments. The current 2012-2013 TIR is Mrs. Lisa Rainey, who was a former high school science teacher and community college administrator.

University and Department Background

Towson University (TU), a member of the state university system of Maryland, began as a Teacher’s College, and the tradition of developing qualified teachers continues as TU graduates the highest number of education majors in the state. Currently 2,382 undergraduate and 1,698 graduate students are enrolled in teacher education programs at TU.

TU is one of the few academic institutions nationwide to have a significant number of education faculty housed in its science content departments. For example, the PAGS department contains six science education faculty members, with one specializing in high school education and the rest specializing in elementary or middle school education.

The PAGS physics program has four concentrations to choose from: general, applied, astrophysics, and secondary education. These concentrations have historically emphasized undergraduate research experiences, a high degree of faculty-student interaction, and a comprehensive curriculum. Most faculty in the department are active in research.

In addition to their general education requirements, secondary physics education students complete 34 credits of physics courses, 23 to 24 credits of non-physics science and math courses, 32 credits of non-science education courses, and 15 credits of science education courses.

Starting in 2000, the PAGS department concentrated on increasing the number of its physics majors – which is critically important to secondary education efforts because secondary education majors are drawn from the larger pool of physics majors. From 2000 to 2012, PAGS grew its number of physics majors from 34 to 114 through the implementation of admissions targeting, scholarship programs, improved advising, the creation of a first-year seminar, and grouped on-campus housing of majors. However, despite the increase in physics majors, the enrollment numbers of physics secondary education majors (prior to PhysTEC) remained disappointingly low. In total, only two undergraduate students graduated from TU with a physics secondary education degree between 2002 and 2009.

Project Goals

The 2010-2013 TU PhysTEC project goals fall into two categories: physics program goals and physics secondary education program goals.

Physics Program Goals
  • Refine, enhance, and expand the amount of active learning pedagogy in introductory and upper division physics courses
  • Provide professional development and mentoring for full- and part-time physics faculty new to active learning instruction
  • Increase the extent to which physics majors engage in ongoing discussions regarding secondary teaching as a possible career option
  • Provide early teaching experiences for physics majors to get them interested in secondary teaching as a possible career option
Physics Secondary Education Program Goals
  • Clarify, reorganize, and disseminate the description and requirements of the secondary physics education program to help with recruitment of secondary education majors
  • Modify the secondary science teaching methods course such that secondary education majors increase their depth and breadth of physics-specific pedagogical content knowledge
  • Create organizations and activities that will help secondary physics education develop feelings of belonging to an educational community
  • Provide education-based internships to help declared secondary physics education students maintain an interest in teaching as a career
  • Work with the College of Education, its Center for Professional Practice, and neighboring school districts to select appropriate mentor teachers and provide orientation workshops to ensure that active learning approaches are valued and implemented in the student teaching semesters
  • Increase the amount of financial support offered to secondary physics education majors
  • Maintain communication with and provide mentoring for recent secondary physics education graduates

Project Activities and Successes

The national PhysTEC organization has identified key components of successful teacher education programs, including: recruitment, resident master teachers (TIRs), course transformation, early teaching experiences, learning assistants, and induction & mentoring.1 The activities and successes described below are a summary of Towson’s PhysTEC efforts from 2010-2012, as categorized by these key components. Similar activities can be found at other PhysTEC sites, although some activities (as noted) are unique to Towson and represent TU’s contribution to the evolution and advancement of the national project.

Recruitment. In alignment with nationally advocated PhysTEC recruitment activities, the PAGS department displays teaching posters in its hallways, holds informational meetings for physics majors interested in education, and has intense one-on-one advising sessions with incoming, newly-declared, and continuing secondary education majors. One recruitment practice that potentially sets Towson apart from other PhysTEC sites is ongoing communication between TU PhysTEC TIRs and local high school teachers (via email, classroom visits, Physics Olympiad meetings, etc.); these discussions and presentations focus on encouraging high school physics students - especially those who show promise as teachers - to consider (a) teaching as a profession and (b) joining the secondary education program at TU.

Prior to 2010, the greatest number of physics secondary education majors in the PAGS department (across all levels, including MAT students) was three, which occurred in 2008-2009. Historically, a more typical number has been either one physics secondary education major across the entire department, or none at all. In stark contrast, as of November 2012, we now have thirteen secondary physics education majors, including four MAT students. Thanks to PhysTEC, this is a substantial and welcome increase in the number of future physics teachers at Towson.

Resident teachers. Full-time TIRs are the only project team members who dedicate 100% of their working hours to PhysTEC, so the role that they play in the project is critical. At TU, our TIRs perform a multitude of important tasks, including mentoring recent secondary education graduates, meeting with college and high school physics students interested in education, and helping learning assistants to integrate active learning exercises and inquiry-based questioning techniques into lecture and lab courses.

TIR activities, unique to the TU program, include offering professional development workshops to Baltimore County teachers, teaching a new third-semester early teaching course (described below), and working with two-year colleges and TU administrators to ensure that the transfer of two-year students into the secondary physics education program goes smoothly.

The greatest success of our hard-working TIRs has been the creation of an energetic teaching community of undergraduate learning assistants and physics faculty who have increasingly gained an interest in reform- and research-based physics pedagogies. Our TIRs are now the “go-to” project members, for example, when a faculty member hopes to integrate an interactive demonstration into lecture. Personal contact between the TIRs and secondary education students has also played a key role in increasing and retaining the number of secondary education majors in the department.

Course transformation and learning assistants. As a result of PhysTEC funding, the PAGS department has been able to double the number of undergraduate physics learning assistants (LAs) that are hired each semester. From 2010-2012, seventeen undergraduates served as physics LAs, often for multiple semesters. Ten different full- and part-time physics faculty utilized these LAs.

LAs spend their time in the project doing one thing: supporting the improvement and redesign of physics courses. They do this by serving as tutors, offering test review sessions, helping with instructional planning, and either leading or assisting with student-centered learning activities in lecture and lab. As part of their paid duties, LAs also attend Teaching and Learning seminars and meet regularly with TIRs and course instructors.

One particularly important success is that LAs have come to realize that experiences with active-learning pedagogical methods will serve them well in any teaching career, whether they end up as a high school teacher, graduate teaching assistant, university faculty member, or parent.

Induction and mentoring. Mentoring is an ongoing activity that begins in our undergraduate program and continues into the first few years of high school teaching. Dr. Hermann officially advises and mentors all secondary education majors in the department, with additional informal advising/mentoring being provided by the TIRs. Upon graduation, the responsibility for university-based mentoring officially shifts to the TIRs, though Dr. Hermann still maintains correspondence with alumni.

Induction is a separate concept that represents the integration of the future teacher into the greater physics teaching community. One goal is to help the future teacher develop an “I am a teacher” (as opposed to an “I am a student”) mindset. At TU, we have had success with helping future teachers feel connected with practicing teachers and the teaching profession by having them present at local and national educational conferences (e.g., Maryland Association of Science Teachers, National Science Teachers Association). Additionally, a preservice physics teacher – with the help of Dr. Hermann - has resurrected and is now the president of TU’s local National Science Teachers Association chapter.

Early teaching experiences. Prior to TU becoming a secondary PhysTEC site, PAGS faculty and the Dean investigated the nationally recognized UTeach project and adapted selected UTeach activities for local use. Consequently, TU has offered versions of UTeach’s STEP 1 and STEP 2 courses for the past four years; in these one-credit, low-stakes courses, first- and second-year STEM majors are placed in informal teaching contexts (e.g., science museums, nature centers) and elementary and middle school classrooms to give them an opportunity to develop an interest in teaching. Since the TU STEP courses were put into place, twelve physics majors have enrolled in STEP 1 or STEP 2.

TU has extended the STEP sequence even further by creating a new STEP 3 course for secondary physics education majors (only). This course, which is taught by a TIR, places secondary majors into high school classrooms as participant observers to give them additional pre-student teaching experience. Student evaluations of the STEP 3 course have been extremely positive.

Other early teaching experiences at TU include the aforementioned learning assistant program and various informal outreach activities in the department and college.

Ongoing Challenges

No project is perfect, and our PhysTEC project is no exception. Not everything has gone as planned, and not all problems have been solved. The following is a truncated list of ongoing challenges that are related to Towson’s secondary physics education improvement efforts.
  • Identifying effective recruiting strategies has been difficult, as most students in the teaching concentration are not influenced by one specific strategy.
  • Other PhysTEC sites use learning assistant programs and early teaching coursework to recruit students into the secondary education major, but this approach has not been successful at TU. While we have found LA and early teaching programs to be extremely beneficial in a variety of different ways, these activities have not motivated undecided physics majors to switch into the secondary teaching concentration.
  • Increasing the number of future high school teachers in the university pipeline should not come at the expense of teacher quality, and we are struggling with how to implement evaluation and feedback mechanisms so that only those students who should become high school teachers (in terms of interpersonal and instructional skill, etc.) actually do so.
  • As of Fall 2012, TU has become a UTeach replication site, so the path to sustaining our PhysTEC successes will partly rest on the degree to which Towson’s UTeach project will maintain and duplicate our PhysTEC project activities. The extent to which this might occur is currently unclear, since UTeach is a general project focused on secondary STEM education (not just secondary physics education), and the UTeach model for resident teachers is very different from the PhysTEC model in terms of expected duties and responsibilities.

Final Thoughts

Towson University’s participation in the secondary education-focused national PhysTEC project has been a rewarding three-year experience that has resulted in an increase the number of physics secondary education majors, new avenues of communication between physics and education faculty (even within the PAGS department), and improved faculty and learning assistant attitudes toward active learning instructional methods. Those of you who are interested in improving your own secondary education programs should feel free to contact the TU PhysTEC directors or members of the national PhysTEC project for details and support. Our aim is to share what we have learned over the past few years, which means offering advice on what NOT to do as well as brainstorming secondary education activities that might be appropriate for your own institutional context.

Dr. Cody Sandifer is a member of the Towson University Department of Physics, Astronomy, and Geosciences and was the co-director of Towson University’s original PhysTEC site.

Dr. Ronald Hermann is a member of the Towson University Department of Physics, Astronomy, and Geosciences and a former high school teacher.


1. There are eleven key components in total; the others are not addressed here.

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.