Doing the Right Thing (and in the Right Place):Starting a Teacher Preparation Program at a Research University

Laurie E. McNeil

An institution classified by the Carnegie Foundation as "RU/VH" (research university, very high research activity) rarely considers the preparation of high school teachers to be a central part of its mission. Its faculty members tend to concentrate instead on producing new knowledge and preparing the future professoriate. My own institution’s mission statement highlights undergraduate and doctoral education and discovering knowledge, but only at the very end (almost as an afterthought) are we charged to "address, as appropriate, regional, national and international needs." At such institutions the reward system is clear: professors with high-profile research programs resulting in significant and highly-cited publications, abundant grant funds, and doctoral students who become outstanding faculty members are rewarded with endowed chairs, salary increases, and great respect both inside and outside the institution. Outstanding classroom teachers are rewarded with the high regard of their students and perhaps a university teaching award. But producing high school teachers is not something for which a reward mechanism typically exists for faculty at a RU/VH institution.

However, especially at a state institution, this often-overlooked part of the mission statement may be among the most visible and valued parts of what external constituencies expect the institution to do in exchange for the public financial support it receives. Even relatively modest efforts toward solving a serious and widely-recognized problem can have significant benefits in public good will, a fact not lost on Provosts, Chancellors, and Presidents of universities. A department that is willing to establish a teacher-training program "because it is the right thing to do" may well be able to obtain the resources necessary to do so without significantly compromising its pursuit of excellence in research. That has certainly been the case at my institution.

The School of Education (SOE) at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) sees its role within this research institution as providing strong research and graduate education (not just teacher preparation) in which new knowledge is generated and teachers and administrators are educated to become leaders. It has not had a bachelor’s-level program for high school teacher preparation for at least a decade, though it does have a small Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program. Until recently, the Physics & Astronomy department had essentially no involvement in teacher preparation beyond teaching a few SOE students in our introductory classes.

In spring 2006, the Chairs of the science departments in the College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) responded to an overture from the Dean of the SOE to form a partnership to produce high school science teachers. All of us were concerned about the quality of the teaching of our subjects in North Carolina high schools and the resulting preparation of the students who matriculate at UNC-CH, as well as the level of science literacy of our state’s high school graduates and its implications for an informed citizenry. Geology was well aware that a new North Carolina requirement that all high school students take a course in "Earth/Environmental Science," together with the small number of teachers with geology backgrounds, meant that large numbers of students were being taught geology by people who know very little about it. Physics and geology were both eager to increase the number of majors in our departments, and biology and chemistry wanted to offer alternative career paths to the many "post-pre-med" students who come to realize that medical school is not in their future. We were all aware that there could be political advantages if our institution were to be seen by external constituencies as helping to alleviate the shortage of highly-qualified science teachers.

The program we conceived, called UNC-BEST (UNC Baccalaureate Education in Science and Teaching), was built on the existing alternative licensure ("lateral entry") program that the SOE operates for professionals in other fields who wish to become licensed as teachers. In it, physics, biology, chemistry or geology majors can meet all (or almost all) of the requirements for licensure by the time they complete the BS or BA degree in their science field. They take a focused and intensive set of three Education courses, plus one course in the pedagogy of their science that is taught within their major department and counts toward the requirements for their major. By very careful construction of the syllabi of the four required courses we were able to meet all of the standards for licensure (including required fieldwork) set by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) within this extremely compact program. Further, the courses in the program fulfill general education requirements (in social science and experiential education) in the CAS. The students need to use only one free elective to meet the licensure requirements—a critical factor in attracting students pursuing our rigorous BS curricula.

The final requirement for licensure is 10 weeks of full-time student teaching, which our students manage in one of two ways. If through a combination of AP/IB credit and summer school attendance they are able to fulfill all their degree requirements by the end of the fall semester of their senior year, they can do their student teaching in the spring semester and graduate after four years with a science degree and eligibility for licensure as teachers. Otherwise they can complete their science degrees and the teacher preparation course requirements in four years and then be hired as a full-time teacher with a provisional license the following school year under the alternative licensure program. They receive coaching and supervision from members of the SOE faculty (registering as licensure-only students for this purpose), and upon successful completion of a year of teaching are eligible for full licensure.

The next step was to implement the program we designed, which required appropriate personnel. In order to develop and teach the new pedagogy courses within the science departments, we needed instructors who were well-versed in the relevant science, the theoretical and practical aspects of effective pedagogy, and the North Carolina Standard Course of Study that public school teachers must teach. Further, NCDPI requires that the instructors for the pedagogy courses be licensed as teachers. No such faculty existed on our campus, so we needed to hire new people in order to launch the program. We decided to pilot the program in biology, the discipline with by far the largest number of majors (~1700, more than twice as many as the other three disciplines combined), and add the other disciplines later. We pitched the program to our Provost, who is certainly well aware of the severe shortage of qualified science teachers in the state and the small number produced by the UNC system schools each year. If she had not known about it before, the fact that the President of the 16-campus system mentioned it in his inaugural speech would have brought it to her attention. Recognizing the large benefit that could be obtained at modest cost, she provided funding for a Lecturer in the Biology Department to implement the program. We were able to hire a very talented person with BS and MS degrees in biology and BS and PhD degrees in science education (the PhD awarded by our own SOE) as well as an NC teaching license. Shortly thereafter, the Physics & Astronomy Department was selected as a PhysTEC site, and on the strength of that grant we were able to persuade the Provost to provide an additional Lecturer position to establish the program in physics. We hired another very talented person with a PhD in physics education research. She lacks a teaching license, but because the PhysTEC grant provides funding for a Teacher-in-Residence, we are able to fulfill the NCDPI requirement and bring real-world experience to bear by having the two of them co-teach the physics pedagogy course.

Our program is still in its infancy, but we have accomplished much in a short time. We now have approval for all aspects of the program from the CAS, the SOE and the NCDPI; we have taught the biology and physics pedagogy courses for the first time; and have admitted the first cohort of students into the program. We expect to graduate our first teachers in May 2009. We are currently working to implement the program in geology, and that department has made a request to the Dean of CAS for a faculty line to support the program. This last is particularly significant, because this request was made instead of a request for a tenure-track faculty line that would also contribute to the research activities of the department.

We have all learned much in this process. The CAS faculty members, having no experience with professional accreditation of their programs by government agencies, were entirely unaware of the degree of detail and specificity required. For example, the syllabus for our new physics pedagogy course is 10 pages long rather than the usual 1-2 pages and shows in detail how a long list of state standards are met. Many of our science colleagues were also unaware of the substantial scholarship of teaching and learning well known to our SOE colleagues. We were also quite ignorant of the many things besides knowing science content that go into becoming an effective high school science teacher, including things that happen outside the classroom. Our SOE colleagues, on the other hand, had not realized that CAS faculty members could display such strong interest in preparing teachers, and that we would be willing to form a full partnership based on mutual respect without assuming that we had all the answers. They also gained from our discussions a much clearer picture of how scientists think about science and what it means to understand science (what educators refer to as an "epistemological stance"), and what kinds of knowledge we consider important for students.

A few lessons arising from our experience may be of use to physics faculty in other RU/VH institutions. First, your School of Education is more likely to be your friend than otherwise. A well-regarded, high-quality program to address a critical need will bring them as much political capital (internal and external) as it brings you. In many institutions, the School of Education is looked down upon by other academic units, so SOE faculty members and administrators are likely to be very eager to engage with you if you treat them with respect as the knowledgeable and dedicated professionals they are. If you approach them to form a partnership to find new and creative ways to train students who would not otherwise have become teachers, they are likely to be receptive. Wise leaders in Education schools are acutely aware of the national problem in science teaching and are interested in thinking about new approaches to science pedagogy. They recognize that the formation of partnerships can lead to new ideas and methods for solving the problem.

Second, two (or more) disciplines are better than one. By including other departments in our program, we were able to divide the labor of dealing with the bureaucracy in CAS as well as have more sources of creative ideas for the program. By partnering with biology we had access to a large pool of potential students that made it much easier to argue for resources to support the program than if we had relied on the few physics students we are likely to enroll each year. By partnering with geology we gained an ally even more eager to increase its numbers of majors and qualified teachers than physics.

A third lesson has to do with departmental support. The shortage of good high school science teachers is a problem all science faculty members (especially those with children in school) are well aware of, and everyone thinks it would be great if someone were to solve the problem. They don’t necessarily want to do it themselves (and are usually not really equipped to do so), and they certainly don’t want the solution to come at the expense of their research and upper-division teaching, but they are happy to reap the benefits. It is possible to convince them that students learning how to teach physics actually learn a lot of physics as they do so, and so a rigorous and carefully-constructed pedagogy course is an appropriate physics major elective. Faculty members at a research university also believe that engaging in original research fosters a deeper understanding of physics, and so tend to be in favor of the idea that future teachers should have such an experience. This makes a research university a logical place for teacher preparation if we want teachers to know physics well. And once your faculty members realize that having an education specialist in the department can be very useful when it comes to creating programs that fulfill the NSF "broader impact" criterion [ed. note: see the accompanying article by Monica Plisch], they will warm to the idea even further. It also raises the profile of pedagogy in the department and fosters conversations about it among faculty and graduate teaching assistants that would not otherwise take place, and thereby helps to enhance the quality of the teaching that takes place in the department (especially if the specialist assists with the TA training program). Finally, our specialists also teach some introductory physics or biology courses, for which we have a perpetual need for additional sections to meet enrollment demand.

Another operational lesson is the importance of close cooperation with the public schools. Our PhysTEC grant and the Teacher-in-Residence it supports has enabled us to develop a network of local physics teachers who advise us on how to improve our program, supervise our students in their field experiences, help recruit students to the program, and give us a needed reality check when we get too far out of our area of expertise. They are endlessly enthusiastic about teaching, excellent role models and mentors, and feel truly honored to be asked to be part of a university science program.

Finally, it is important not to underestimate the public relations value of doing the right thing. Our program has yet to graduate a teacher, and yet it has already brought praise for the physics (and biology) department from the Dean, the Provost, and the Chancellor. It has been cited as an excellent example of "public engagement" in a major report on that subject prepared by our campus in response to a directive from the President of the UNC system. There is much to be said for having something other than publications on the theory of big-bang cosmology to cite when asked for examples of the contributions being made by my department to the state of North Carolina. But the real benefits will be in the longer term, when more students who come to our campus have been taught physics by teachers who truly know and love their subject. I’m looking forward to that.

Laurie McNeil ( is chair of the Physics & Astronomy Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and P.I. on its PhysTEC grant.