PhysTEC at The Beach! Key Elements from our Successful PhysTEC Project

Kevin Dwyer
Laura Henriques
California State University, Long Beach

A hallmark of the PhysTEC funded programs is the Teacher-In-Residence. This portion of the program brings a high school physics teacher to a college campus to spend a year in the Physics Department. The Teacher-In-Residence, affectionately known as a TIR, helps recruit, support and prepare future physics teachers in a variety of ways. Each campus has its own expectations for what the TIR will do, but all campuses endeavor to fully incorporate the TIR into the life of the department and campus. Good TIRs make a big difference in how a PhysTEC project progresses. California State University, Long Beach’s (CSULB) approach for implementing the TIR is a bit different than other campuses in that our TIR is part-time with us and full-time in the high school classroom. We try to utilize the TIRs where they can provide the greatest value added. For us, that has been co-teaching courses with full-time faculty, mentoring physics teacher candidates, and helping build and support a community of physics teachers.

The place where the TIR has made the biggest impact is in co-teaching a course which was developed as part of the CSULB PhysTEC grant, PHYS491 – Pedagogical Content Knowledge in Physics. The course has gone through the university curriculum review process, making it a part of the official course offerings for physics. The course is offered once per year with a different topic each time. This fall the class was offered (and 14 students enrolled) even though grant funding had ended in summer. The primary goal of the course is to help pre-service and in-service teachers improve their physics teaching skills within a single topic of physics. We want these teacher candidates (and teachers) to leave the course with a better sense of how to structure learning experiences and reflect upon the best ways to help students learn. A secondary goal of the course is to help create a community of physics teachers. All too often physics teachers get hired as the sole physics teacher at their school site. By regularly bringing together pre-service and in-service physics (and physical science) teachers we are helping to build that network.

The course is an upper division Physics course taught by a high school physics teacher (the TIR) and a science education faculty member with high school physics teaching experience. It focuses on the teaching of a different topic area each semester (so far we have offered waves/sound/optics, force and motion, energy and momentum, and electricity and magnetism). It is a blend of a physics course and a methods course with the goal of building pedagogical content knowledge. The class is open to physics majors, physics credential candidates, and in-service teachers. The course has students investigate common student misconceptions and how they can be challenged. We critically examine labs, demonstrations, simulations, activities and textbooks with an eye towards modifying them to meet the needs of all learners, especially English learners. The sequencing of instruction and the planning of a full unit is a whole class activity which requires students to carefully evaluate all the material seen during the semester. Students also do a grant writing activity. Students find, research and present physics demonstrations as part of the class.

Another requirement of the class is to attend professional development workshops. Choices available include California Science Teacher Association’s Science Education Conference, local AAPT meetings and the Southern California AAPT New Physics Teacher workshops. When the state Science Education Conference is local, the class presents 60 minutes of demonstrations and labs. Each student has approximately five minutes to share something from the semester’s topic. In addition to actually doing the presentation at the conference (a nerve-wracking experience for some!), students prepare the PowerPoint slide that goes along with their demo, write an explanation of the physics involved, and describe where in the unit they might use the demo. The materials they create (PPT and explanation) are posted on the conference website.

The impact of the Physics Teaching course at CSULB can be measured in multiple ways. At the beginning of the course, students take a pre-assessment to gauge their knowledge of the physics content for that semester. Post-assessment results show statistically significant gains in content knowledge. Both assessments also require students to rate how confident they were for each answer. The students showed content gains, increased confidence in their knowledge, and an indication that the increased confidence is warranted. In other words, at the end of the course they are confident in what they accurately know and they recognize areas where their content knowledge is weaker. Many students start the semester thinking they know all the content even when they don’t, so this metacognitive shift is noteworthy.

Another measure of the success of the class is the number of students who have taken the class multiple times (allowable since the physics topic changes each semester). This course is an elective, not counting towards the physics teaching credential or the physics major. This was intentional so that we would not be bound by the state and College of Education assessment and accreditation requirements. Yet, students take the class multiple times, even though it doesn’t “count” because they find value in it.

To achieve the secondary goal of developing a community of physics teachers, CSULB instituted monthly Physics Demo Days. Held on campus in the late afternoon, these events are advertised to local high school physics teachers and the campus community. Each month addresses a different topic in the high school physics curriculum. The Demo Days are well attended, typically 35-50 people. The audience includes high school teachers, prospective physics teachers, students in the PhysTEC course, university professors, and others including graduate and undergraduate physics students. Attendees are not required to bring a demo, but all are encouraged to share. The events have lots of lively discussion, questions about the demos and physics, and suggestions for modifications/extensions. The Demo Days often run past the scheduled time and the conversations continue in the hallway afterwards. Students in the PhysTEC course prepare and present a demo and receive feedback on their presentation. As part of the course, they also reflect on their presentation so that they can make improvements for next time. We want them to become contributing members to the science teaching profession and this is one way to start them on that path.

Other ways our PhysTEC program has tried to build a physics teaching culture and community at CSULB include the PhysTEC Open Houses and Physics Social Mixers. The PhysTEC Open House is a community building event that takes place at CSULB each semester. The Open House invites high school physics teachers and several of their students to campus to hear a keynote speaker, do some hands-on activities, have brunch with the university faculty, tour the physics labs and listen to a panel discussion with physics undergraduate and graduate students. There are ample times for networking within and across these groups. It is exciting to see teachers return to these events and to see them exchanging physics teaching ideas. It is also exciting to see their students matriculate with us in subsequent years. We anticipate having them join us as physics majors.

At the campus level, the PhysTEC Social Mixer brings together CSULB physics students, prospective physics teachers, and physics faculty for food and some friendly team physics competitions. Announcements at these events include commercials for how to become a physics teacher and the benefits and rewards of that career choice. A common factor in all of the community building events (the Demo Days, Open Houses, and Social Mixers) is food. If you feed them, they will come!

While it is difficult to measure, many connections have been made between members of the Long Beach/Orange County physics community. Physics teaching candidates from CSULB will, upon graduation, have numerous contacts in the local schools to draw upon for support and advice. They also have contacts with engaged physics teachers to observe during their credential program. The high school teachers have made connections with the university faculty and each other. They have reached out to CSULB physics faculty for content expertise and guest presentations at their school. They have also helped make connections between their high school students and the CSULB physics department. The high school teachers have also made connections with each other, helping ease the isolation associated with being the lone physics teacher on campus.

The course and PhysTEC in general have brought about a cultural change within the Physics department, as faculty now see the value in developing strong high school physics teachers and relationships with physics teachers. Where in the past they encouraged strong physics students to consider graduate school, research or working in industry, faculty now support and encourage physics teaching as a viable and valuable career option. The high quality of our Teacher-In-Residences coupled with strong programming elements has supported this cultural shift and the development of our physics teaching community. It has been a winning combination for all.

Kevin Dwyer is a physics teacher at Cypress High School in the Anaheim Union HSD. He was the CSULB PhysTEC Teacher-In-Residence during 2012-2013.

Laura Henriques is Professor of Science Education at California State University, Long Beach and President of the California Science Teachers Association.

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.