PhysTEC Scholarship Program for Future Physics Teachers

Gabriel Popkin

The Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) Noyce Scholarship Program recently awarded its second round of scholarships to fourteen students at five universities, bringing the total number of scholarships awarded under the program to nineteen. Four scholars from the first round were awarded a second year of support, and ten new scholars joined the program this year. The PhysTEC Noyce Scholarship Program is led jointly by APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) as part of the larger PhysTEC project, which funds selected universities to develop their physics teacher preparation programs and increase the number of qualified physics teachers they graduate.

The 2010–2011 scholars attend Ball State University, Cornell University, Seattle Pacific University, the University of Arkansas, and Western Michigan University, all of which have received funding under the PhysTEC project. Six scholars will be seniors in 2010 - 2011, and eight will be post-baccalaureate students. Each will receive a $15,000 scholarship to pursue his or her goal of becoming a physics teacher, and in turn has made a commitment to teach in a high-need school after graduation. Now that the PhysTEC Noyce Scholarship Program is in its second year, we can reflect on what we have learned, and where we believe the project is headed. This article will discuss the general outlines of the program, our strategies for recruiting teachers, and our vision for the future.

Program overview

In 2008, the APS and AAPT won a $750k award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarships to around thirty future physics teachers at PhysTEC-funded institutions over the next five years. Six institutions - the five listed above as well as the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill - signed on to be PhysTEC Noyce sites. Typically the National Science Foundation, which runs the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, gives grants to faculty members at universities, who then grant scholarships to applicants from  all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors. The PhysTEC Noyce award is the first given to a professional society, as well as the first to focus on a single science discipline. According to NSF Program Officer Joan Prival, "The PhysTEC Noyce project is providing a unique implementation of the Noyce program, and we are very interested to see how the project will benefit from the involvement of a professional society working with a consortium of institutions."

For APS and AAPT, the project has two major benefits. One, it allows us to award these scholarships entirely to future physics teachers, which are among the hardest teachers for schools to hire in any math and science field. And two, it ensures that PhysTEC graduates who take the Noyce scholarship will be teaching in the underserved communities where they are needed the most. Specifically, recipients commit to teach for two years in a high-need school district for every year of scholarship support, where "high-need" is defined as any district in which at least one school has a high proportion of low-income students or out-of-field teachers, or a high teacher turnover rate. This is actually a very broad category that includes a significant fraction of US districts, and Noyce teachers typically have little problem finding a position where they can fulfill their commitment.

The Noyce program began in 2002, and received a major boost from Congress in the form of a 2008 supplemental appropriations bill that dramatically increased its budget. The increase was a direct response to the call for increased preparation of more STEM teachers in the National Academies ' influential Rising Above the Gathering Storm report. As of 2009, the program had made 249 awards that supported 2587 future teachers. The philosophy of the program is to provide an incentive for STEM majors to go into teaching, a field typically offering lower salaries than many other career options available to those with a technical background.

We have found that the financial support does indeed make a big difference to students who are considering whether they can afford to go to school to become teachers. According to Gay Stewart, a University of Arkansas physics professor and PhysTEC Noyce site leader who also administers an independent Noyce project, "The Noyce scholarships allow my students to spend their time learning to teach instead of working or worrying about loans. We have an award-winning Master of Arts in Teaching program, but it is full-time and students don 't get support or have time to work. We should not ask our students to choose teaching over higher-paying professions, and then tell them they need to go into debt to become a teacher." Vera Lyman, a Noyce Scholar and graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder, echoes this, saying, "Student teaching is a particularly hard time financially for teachers who are just going into education, so to have that scholarship when I was student teaching was really helpful."

Recruiting teachers through Noyce

The success of the PhysTEC Noyce Program depends on effective recruiting of talented students who may be interested in teaching. To this end, we have designed posters and brochures to advertise the program, and sent them to the six project sites each fall to be put up around the physics department and science building. In addition, we have a website and we recently produced a video promoting physics teaching careers, which can be viewed at We are in the process of producing a version of the video specifically aimed at potential Noyce applicants, which will be ready by the 2010 NSF Noyce Conference. Posters and brochures may pique students ' initial interest, but that is just the beginning of the process. In fact, the most important thing we have learned about recruiting physics teachers is that it is individualized encouragement, advising, and mentorship that makes the real difference. There is no substitute for hearing from a respected professor, "You know, I think you would make a great physics teacher." Becoming a teacher is a commitment of many years if not a lifetime - first to an educational track that leads to teaching certification, and second to service in the classroom and ongoing professional growth to become an expert teacher. Some people are on the teaching track from an early age, but as we see over and over again in the data, very few of these people get physics degrees. Likewise, many students discover and pursue a passion for physics, but not nearly enough of them are drawn into teaching the subject they love.

future teacher poster
Several of our scholars were inspired to pursue physics teaching by the experience of having a bad physics teacher in high school. This experience gave them the opportunity to help their peers understand the subject (since the teacher had failed to do so) and thus discover the joys of teaching. Thus it is not surprising that one of the most effective strategies we have seen for developing interest in teaching is an early teaching experience called the Learning Assistant program, which most PhysTEC sites now implement in some form ( Learning Assistants are talented undergraduates who work with faculty members to make large-enrollment courses more collaborative, student-centered, and interactive. Such programs provide potential future teachers with strongly supported and low-stress early teaching experiences. In some cases, students in the Learning Assistants (LA) program first discover an interest in teaching through their experiences as an LA. The specific roles that Learning Assistants take on can vary between courses, but the common elements that distinguish them from conventional teaching assistantships are that Learning Assistants are typically recruited from among the top students in their class; they participate in a pedagogy course that introduces them to interactive teaching techniques and education research; and they are actively encouraged to enter a teacher certification program, often as a requirement for continuing in the program in future semesters.

Seattle Pacific University (SPU) has made its Learning Assistant program the cornerstone of its recruitment strategy. Site leader Lane Seeley describes his department 's efforts to create an environment that emphasizes teaching and learning, "From their first day in a physics class at SPU, students are expected to fully participate in a community of physics learners, taking responsibility for their own learning as well as the learning of their peers. Students who were drawn to the intellectual challenge of science begin to recognize science teaching as a uniquely complex intellectual pursuit. The SPU Learning Assistant program consistently recruits some of the university 's most accomplished students, who are drawn to the challenge of helping others construct physics understanding. For them, the Noyce Scholarship represents both an affordable plan and call to conviction. The decision to apply for a Noyce Scholarship is also an opportunity to transform their interest in physics teaching into a firm plan. One lesson we have learned at SPU is the importance of paying personal attention to individual students. A strategic teacher recruitment and preparation program is important, but there is no substitute for one-on-one mentorship. When we sit down with our students and tell them why we think they would be a great physics teacher they really take it to heart." The success of Seattle Pacific 's efforts to engender in their students a desire to teach is evident in the fact that seven SPU students were awarded scholarships this year.

Another master of the personal touch is Gay Stewart, whose success in advising and mentoring prospective teachers have led to national recognition for Arkansas ' physics teacher preparation program. Stewart says, "Even when you have gotten a student interested in a career teaching physics, there are many roadblocks and distractions that can easily divert them from the teaching track. I work with all my future teachers every semester to make sure they are taking the right courses, getting the right experiences, and staying on track to graduate with the preparation they need to be successful. The Noyce scholarship is a huge help in that it removes the major distraction of how to pay for school, and the expectation of teaching in a high-need school also helps solidify my students ' commitment to the teaching career."

What comes next

It is abundantly clear by now that mentoring and professional development for beginning teachers is as important to their professional success as is their undergraduate preparation. Because the first cohort of PhysTEC Noyce Scholars are only just now completing their scholarship term, the project does not yet have any teachers in the field. But as these teachers begin to graduate and enter the classroom, we plan to support them through a variety of measures. After each of their first two years of teaching, all PhysTEC Noyce teachers will receive funding to attend a one-day professional development program before the AAPT Summer Meeting, as well as the meeting itself. The project also plans to provide opportunities for teachers to attend longer professional development workshops, such as those offered by the Modeling Instruction Program. In addition, the project has offered funding to its sites to hire part-time Teachers-in-Residence to help mentor recent graduates as well as current scholarship recipients. Beyond their cohort in the PhysTEC Noyce program, we expect our graduates to become part of the growing network of Noyce Scholars from around the country. Noyce scholars who are now teaching cite this network as one of the principle benefits of participating in the program. As Shelly Stachurski, a Noyce Scholar and graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder, says, "I can attend a conference and inevitably I will run into a Noyce scholar. We will have that connection and immediately we can start talking about how having the Noyce scholarship and this network influences our teaching practice. We share resources, we share stories, and we share email addresses and stay in touch."

Ultimately, the PhysTEC Noyce project hopes to support around 30 teachers over the next five years. But the larger goal of the project is to create not just teachers, but teacher leaders, who will have an impact that stretches beyond their classroom to their fellow teachers, as they take on leadership roles within their districts and professional organizations. As Valerie Otero, PhysTEC site leader and Noyce program administrator at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says, "Noyce Scholars are the future teacher leaders of this country. They are going to be the ones who figure what the education of tomorrow looks like."

Gabriel Popkin works on education projects for the American Physical Society He graduated in 2003 with a B.A. in physics from Wesleyan University.

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.