Tomorrow’s Outstanding Physics Teachers at the University of Missouri

Karen E. L. King, University of Missouri

A recent editorial in the New York Times, “Who Says Math Has to Be Boring?”, once again brought national attention to the great need for highly qualified science and math teachers (Rosenthal, 2013). As noted in the article, less than 50% of all physical science (including physics) high school classes are taught by teachers with a major in the subject (Hill & Gruber, 2011). Given this trend, it’s not surprising that colleagues grumble about our incoming students’ lack of curiosity and problem-solving skills. Yet we are in a position to improve the preparation of these students by investing in our current undergraduates – and encouraging them to consider teaching as a career. The Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC), as a project of the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers, aims to transform secondary physics by drastically increasing the number of new teachers who actually have a physics degree; this national recruiting effort is coupled with a commitment to improve the quality of physics teacher education, with the aim of improving high school student achievement.

As a starting point, we need to take an inventory of what our own institutions are doing to prepare physics teachers. A nationwide survey of physics departments by the Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics (T-TEP) found that only 7% of responding departments had an active physics teacher education program, where “active” is defined as graduating two or more undergraduate students per year (The Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics (T-TEP), 2012). This survey had a 77% response rate, with 578 departments responding. Missouri has historically mirrored this national trend, reporting physics teacher shortages for all but one year in the past decade (DESE, 2012). From 2007-2011, Missouri schools graduated only 5.6 new physics teachers per year from all standard undergraduate programs combined (DESE, Public Records: Physics Courses and Physics Certification 2007-2011, 2011). The flagship institution, the University of Missouri (MU), conferred an annual average of only 0.22 B.S. degrees in secondary physics education from 2004-2012. Meanwhile, demand has grown, both nationally and in Missouri, where enrollment in secondary physics courses increased by 49% from 2007 to 2011 (DESE, Public Records: Physics Courses and Physics Certification 2007-2011, 2011). Clearly, MU, like other universities, could do more to help meet the growing demand for physics.

In 2012, the University of Missouri in Columbia launched Tomorrow’s Outstanding Physics Teacher (TOP Teacher), a new initiative supported by PhysTEC. The goals of the program are to:
  • Increase the number of MU students earning degrees that lead to highly qualified secondary physics certification to at least 3.33 per year by 2015.
  • Better prepare teachers with physics-specific content and pedagogy.
  • Contribute to the national PhysTEC model to effect statewide and nationwide change.

The state standard for secondary physics education is below our own criteria for what we consider “highly qualified.” While Missouri allows physics certification through “test endorsement” (i.e. passing the physics Praxis test), TOP teacher graduates include only students who earn dual B.S. degrees in physics and in physics education, or those who earn an M.S. in science education after having attained a B.S. or B.A. in physics or similar field (e.g. engineering). Since we initiated reforms in Fall 2012, MU has graduated two new students who fit this qualification. An additional nine students are officially enrolled in the dual B.S. physics education degree program, and several other students have indicated that they plan to enroll in either the B.S. or M.S. programs. Comparing our average number of physics education B.S. degrees in the nine years before reforms (0.22/yr) to the average number anticipated in the first four years of reforms (2.25/yr), we anticipate > 900% growth. Furthermore, the trajectory is increasing (six students are expected to graduate in 2016), and we hope to have an additional 1-2 new physics graduates annually from the M.S. in science education program (compared to a prior average of 0.56/yr), helping us meet our goal of more than 3 students per year.

So what has made the difference?

The University of Missouri has implemented what PhysTEC and the T-TEP report have determined to be key components of a successful teacher preparation program, including:
  • hiring a Teacher in Residence from the local school district;
  • building a Learning Assistant program to promote early teaching experiences;
  • introducing new courses and advocating for reforms in others;
  • recruiting (and retaining) students using diverse tactics;
  • facilitating multiple entry points for students to commence physics education programs; and
  • nurturing collaborations between the College of Education and Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Leveraging existing partnerships among and within local schools, the university, and the physics department, Tomorrow’s Outstanding Physics Teacher (TOP Teacher) at MU has taken on its own local version of each of these essential components.

The Positive Effects of a Teacher in Residence

Using a cornerstone of the PhysTEC model, our TOP teacher program hosts a high school physics teacher who takes a leave of absence from teaching to work at the university. Our current Teacher in Residence, Mr. Doug Steinhoff, has been hugely influential in building a more effective program for attracting physics students to the teaching profession and educating them in best practices. A master physics teacher with more than 25 years in the classroom, Mr. Steinhoff also brought more than a decade of experience working with MU physics faculty on education initiatives. In the past few years, he has served as an instructor over the summer in the NSF-sponsored “A TIME for Physics First”, aimed at providing >10 weeks on-site professional development and three years of academic year support for more than 60 ninth grade physics teachers across Missouri (Chandrasekhar, 2011). The strong relationships that have been built among Columbia Public Schools teachers and administrators as well as MU physics faculty have greatly eased the implementation of new program components, such as opportunities to explore high school teaching, and a new physics course taught by Mr. Steinhoff (both reforms are described in the next two sections). Mr. Steinhoff’s practical knowledge of teaching physics and his contagious enthusiasm for inspiring and challenging kids have made him an excellent resource and effective recruiter for the TOP teacher program.

Learning Assistants in Columbia High Schools

We have found the single most important recruiting tool to be our unique high school learning assistant (LA) program. Physics, engineering, and physics education students are encouraged to apply for paid positions to help in local high school physics classrooms. Most work in ninth grade classes where the MU Physics First modeling and inquiry-based curriculum is taught. They attend the class every time it meets for the duration of the semester. This time commitment greatly exceeds the 20-24 hours per semester of field experiences that education students take with each of their three science teaching methods courses. Significantly, this early teaching experience is also available to physics and engineering majors, rather than limited to education students. As a recruiting tool, the frequent interaction with high school students lets them experience the rewards of teaching and touching people’s lives.

A physics major who participated in the learning assistant program commented in our end-of-semester evaluation that the “best part of being an LA was connecting with students.” Indeed, LAs who are hired for a second semester request to be in the same classroom so that they can continue to work with the students they have already gotten to know.  As an educational opportunity, those who will ultimately become teachers gain additional experience with excellent cooperating teachers who have been carefully selected by the Teacher in Residence. In comparison to their field experiences, physics education majors have told us that they learn much more from the extensive learning assistant program. Indeed, when the cooperating teachers have had substitute teachers, the high school students routinely turn to the LAs for help.

Undergraduates who wish to serve as an LA for a second semester are required to take our new physics course, “Teaching Physics”, aimed at introducing students to effective practices in high school physics instruction. By asking students to take this additional step along the pathway towards a teaching career, the program remains committed to investing in the education of future teachers.

Course Reforms and a Growing LA program

In the Spring 2014 semester, we will employ our first group of LAs in MU classes, starting with College Physics I. Working from the standard model developed at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the LAs will facilitate a variety of collaborative learning in this large enrollment course, the first semester of the algebra-based introductory sequence. As required for the position, all seven of these LAs have served as high school LAs in a previous semester and have taken (or are enrolled for the Spring semester in) “Teaching Physics”. Thus, they are familiar with the research-based active learning strategies that will be implemented in the course. Recitations will have greater emphasis on conceptual understanding, and thinking about one’s own thinking (metacognition) using a combination of University of Maryland open-source tutorials (Elby) and Activity Based Physics Thinking Problems (Redish, 2001). Each section (maximum enrollment = 40) will be led by a team of 1 graduate teaching assistant (TA) and 1 undergraduate learning assistant (LA), who will guide students working together in groups. Aligned with the principles of Just in Time Teaching, lectures (maximum enrollment = 200) will be “flipped”; students will be expected to prepare for class ahead of time (e.g. by reading the textbook or watching a mini-lecture and providing formative assessment feedback in the form of online questions and discussion boards). In-class time will be informed by this student feedback and will focus more engaging activities such as peer instruction (Mazur, 1997), interactive lecture demonstrations, clarification of questions, and practice with problem-solving. The lecture hall, with students grouped at tables of two, will be divided by recitation sections with an LA assigned to each section.

Entering our fourth semester of the LA program, we have seen the greatest interest in the program yet – 7 new students were hired to work in high school courses in the spring, out of a pool of 14 new applicants. An additional 7 students are enthusiastic about assisting in the reformed College Physics I course at MU.

Recruitment into Multiple Entry Points

A dual degree in physics and physics education at MU is difficult (or near impossible) to complete if students have not chosen their degree plan by the end of their sophomore year, yet it is well known that college students often change their major (sometimes several times). Offering post-baccalaureate programs provides increased opportunities for potential physics teachers to earn certification. We have found that the learning assistant program and the Teaching Physics course allow such students to explore teaching as a career, knowing that the M.S. in science education program is available to them if they choose to become certified. Furthermore, it has become a way to engage these students in teaching experiences as juniors and seniors, rather than having to wait until they graduate to begin the process of teacher education. Being in just our second year of the reformed program, it is hard to predict how many of our current students will choose this path. However, as many as four of our current or former LAs have indicated a serious interest in the program.

We have employed multiple tactics for recruiting into the two degree programs (B.S. and M.S.). For both programs, the primary strategy is to attract students by asking them to apply for the paid learning assistant program. We make visits to introductory and advanced physics classes, as well as spreading the word by posters, websites, Facebook , department-wide emails, and a HDTV widescreen monitor outside the lecture halls for the large enrollment introductory courses. For all of our advertisements, the message is clear: the LA position is an opportunity to explore physics teaching as a career. The high school placement seems to attract applicants who are sincerely interested in (or at least curious about) teaching as a career. The word-of-mouth effect has caught on this semester; now that we have a critical mass of LAs within the department, many new applicants have told us that their friend told them about the opportunity. We are open to sharing any and all of our recruiting materials; please contact the corresponding author.

Essential Partners in Physics Education

Almost all of the program components rest on the solid foundation of existing partnerships. We are fortunate to have an excellent relationship with the College of Education, which has been hugely supportive of this initiative. The education faculty and staff have helped us clarify advising sheets for students, been open to degree plan changes (including the new “Teaching Physics” pedagogical content knowledge course), help us track students, and send any curious students our way. Before embarking on a new or reformed teacher preparation program, we would highly recommend building and nurturing relationships with colleagues in education. The top three strategies we have found to be most helpful are:
  • Pursue a faculty line for a joint appointment in physics and education. The College of Education and College of Arts and Sciences has three faculty members with joint appointments. These colleagues have been instrumental in connecting faculty across campus.
  • Serve on committees. Several of our physics faculty serve on doctoral and masters students committees in education. We have also participated in science education faculty searches.
  • Write grants together. In addition to collaborating on the PhysTEC award, physics and education faculty work together on the NSF-sponsored “A Time for Physics First” grant (aimed at high school teachers) and an NSF-sponsored “Quality Elementary Science Teaching (QUEST)” grant.

These collaborations within MU have spilled over into collaborations with the local school district. Many of the science (especially physics) teachers have served on the Physics First and QUEST grants. Additionally, we have a great working relationship with the science coordinator for the school district. This support has proven invaluable to negotiating leave and compensation for our Teacher in Residence and has made the placement of LAs in the classrooms a welcomed proposal.

Meeting the Statewide Need

We have seen tremendous growth in the past year; based on the upward trend in enrollment, we hope see graduation rates of five or more new teachers per year. Indeed, this would place our department among the 1% of physics departments nationally that currently report more than four graduates per year (The Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics (T-TEP), 2012). Clearly, however, this would still not be enough to meet the needs of all the schools in Missouri. We are pleased to learn of the new Noyce Program at Truman State University, which offers dual degrees in physics and math education, and we look forward to learning more about the learning assistant program at Missouri University of Science and Technology in their upcoming LEAD workshop in February 2014. In the coming years, we aim to build a network of colleagues across Missouri who are also committed to physics teacher preparation, that we might eliminate the current teacher shortages and enhance student learning across the state.

Chandrasekhar, M. H. (2011). “Teacher professional development must come first for 'Physics First' to succeed. Journal Educational Chronicle, 1(2), 1-9.

DESE, M. D. (2011, December). Public Records: Physics Courses and Physics Certification 2007-2011. Jefferson City, MO.

DESE, M. D. (2012). Missouri Teacher Shortage Areas. Jefferson City: Available:

Elby, A. E. (n.d.). Open source Tutorials in Physics Sensemaking, Suite 1&2,. Retrieved from

Hill, J. G., & Gruber, K. J. (2011). Education and Certification Qualifications of Departmentalized Public High School-Level Teachers of Core Subjects: Evidence from the 2007-2008 Survey. Washington, D.C.: US Department of Education.

Mazur, E. A. (1997). Peer Instruction: A user's manual. Physics Today.

Redish, E. F. (2001, July). Activity Based Physics Thinking Problems in Phyiscs. Retrieved from University of Maryland Physics Education Research Group:

Rosenthal, A. (2013, December 7). Who says math has to be boring? The New York Times. Retrieved from

The Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics (T-TEP). (2012). Transforming the Preparation of Physics Teachers: A Call to Action. College Park, MD: American Physical Society. Retrieved from

Dr. Karen King ( is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Missouri. She serves as PI on the PhysTEC award and as key personnel on two NSF-sponsored projects aimed at teacher education, Quality Elementary Science Teaching (QUEST) and A TIME for Physics First.

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.