Sustaining a Physics Teacher Preparation Program: Challenges and Strategies

Laurie E. McNeil
Dept. of Physics & Astronomy
Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Members of the APS Forum on Education are well aware of the need for more well-qualified high school physics teachers, and in the Summer 2008 Forum Newsletter I wrote about establishing a teacher preparation program at my institution to help meet this need. Six years later I can now reflect on what we have learned about the challenges of sustaining such a program, and strategies for meeting those challenges.

First, some inconvenient truths. In order to become a well-qualified physics teacher, a student should major, or at least minor, in physics or physics education (that’s not all it takes, of course). Currently only about 35% of new physics teachers in the US were physics majors in college.1 But as the physics community is all too aware, physics majors constitute a very small fraction of all college graduates: in 2010 only 0.3% of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the US were in physics.2 While the fraction varies by institution (MIT has more), the number of physics students a teacher preparation program can recruit will always be small. Further, at a major research university like my institution, few students in any field matriculate with the intention of becoming high school teachers. In North Carolina, young people who want to become teachers are likely to be drawn to one of the schools in the University of North Carolina (UNC) system that has a strong tradition of teacher preparation. According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, of the teachers (all levels and subjects) produced by the 16 universities in the UNC system, almost 40% graduated from either Appalachian State University or East Carolina University, both of which are former teacher’s colleges.  Less than 10% came from the two research-intensive institutions in the system, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) and North Carolina State University.  While we try to persuade our physics majors to consider becoming teachers, we know that most of them have their eyes on graduate school. This is typical — among institutions that have physics teacher preparation programs the most common number of graduates per year is zero, and the vast majority graduate fewer than two physics teachers per year.3

A second inconvenient truth well known to academics is that universities have suffered major budget cuts in recent years, and public institutions have seen significant declines in state support that have not been fully offset by tuition increases. At UNC-CH we saw an 18% cut in our state appropriation in FY2012, on top of a cumulative 29% cut over 2008-11.4 When budgets are tight, “low-performing” programs are likely targets for cuts. However, the cost of teacher preparation does not scale with the number of graduates — the cost of teaching a physics pedagogy course is about the same regardless of the number of students enrolled in it. The small number of teachers produced and the stresses on institutional budgets combine to create a significant challenge to the continued existence of physics teacher preparation programs.

A good strategy to sustain a small program is to seek allies, and one obvious place to find them is in the other science departments. While physics teachers are in much shorter supply than are teachers in other science fields, secondary schools also experience some shortages when they seek to hire well-qualified teachers in mathematics and chemistry5 (subjects that physics teachers often also teach). To a somewhat lesser degree, this is true for biology and earth science as well. (A teacher who really wants to feel the love should move to Hawaii, which has a considerable shortage of teachers in all science fields.) Biology and chemistry departments typically produce far more graduates than do physics departments: at UNC-CH the fields of physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology and geology together produced 13% of the bachelor’s degree recipients in 2008-10, but 65% of those were in biology and 21% were in chemistry (and only 3% in physics).6 Further, biology and chemistry departments often have a large population of “post pre-meds” who have modified their initial plans to attend medical school (perhaps as a result of an organic chemistry class) but who nevertheless would like to do good in the world. Becoming a high school science teacher is one way to accomplish that. Creating a joint program to prepare teachers in multiple fields, especially those that produce a lot of graduates, can prevent the program from being labeled “low performing” and becoming a target for budget cuts. With the exception of the pedagogical content knowledge specific to each discipline, the necessary components of a teacher preparation program (typically provided in courses taught by the School of Education) are the same for all the sciences and can easily be shared. All those biology students can help justify the continued offering of the courses on child and adolescent development, families and schools, and the like that the future physics teachers also need.

On the other hand, a physics teacher preparation program that wishes to produce well-qualified graduates needs a physics pedagogy course that embodies the findings of the research literature on the teaching and learning of physics. While combining pre-service teachers from multiple science disciplines into a generic “science pedagogy” course would obviate the need to offer multiple discipline-specific courses that may have very small enrollments, it would not provide the students with the best preparation for teaching their specific subjects. This creates the problem that with only a small number of students preparing to be physics teachers in any given year, enrollment in the physics pedagogy course may be too small to justify offering it (or it may need to be taught as an “overload,” thereby burdening the instructor). One way to deal with this problem is to embed the pedagogy course into the physics major curriculum as an elective. A strong argument can be made to students (and faculty) that learning to teach physics deepens one’s knowledge of the subject and is excellent preparation for a future career in higher education as well as in high school teaching. Further, since accrediting bodies typically require that the pedagogy course include fieldwork in a local high school, the course may also be able to satisfy a general education requirement for “experiential education,” if the institution’s curriculum has one. Satisfying more than one requirement with a single course is a very attractive proposition for most students, and this may help to fill the class.

The instructor for the physics pedagogy course needs to have deep knowledge of the physics education research (PER) literature and, crucially, how it can best be applied in the context of a high school classroom. If a university physics department does not have a PER group (or even if it does), it may lack a faculty member with that kind of specialized knowledge and need to hire an instructor for this purpose. However, teaching a single course does not constitute a full set of duties, even when recruiting and advising pre-service teachers is included. In order for the program to be sustainable it is necessary to find additional reasons to employ such a specialist. Fortunately, the value that experts of this kind bring to an institution makes the justification simple to construct. Obviously, a physics education specialist can be extremely useful to a physics department that wishes to join the national movement toward improving college science pedagogy and incorporating research-validated active-engagement techniques into science classes, especially at the introductory level. At UNC-CH over the last decade we have transformed our calculus-based introductory sequence from a traditional lecture mode to a more hands-on hybrid lecture/studio mode, and we are about to do the same in our algebra-based introductory sequence. This transformation, involving multiple course sections and faculty members as well as hundreds of students, would have been far more difficult (perhaps impossible) without the help of the physics education specialist we hired initially to support our teacher preparation program. The funding we have received from NSF for these two course transformation projects has also been very valuable, of course, but having someone at the center of it all who has the necessary expertise in PER (as I do not) and who is not also running a research laboratory and fulfilling the myriad other responsibilities of a tenured professor (and, for five years, a department chair) has made the entire enterprise feasible. As part of the transformation, our specialist also completely revamped the training program for our graduate teaching assistants (TAs), turning it from a one-week “boot camp” mostly focused on how to make the instructional lab experiments work and how to grade a lab report (and get the grades in on time, a less-successful part of the training) into a full-semester, for-credit TA seminar incorporating PER findings and focused on creating self-reflective teachers who understand how students learn physics. The specialist’s efforts have therefore broadly influenced the teaching in our department and have helped us to advance the way in which we fulfill our educational mission. These improvements have brought our department considerable recognition from the administration at UNC-CH as well as nationally. In part because of the changes our specialist helped make, UNC-CH was chosen to participate in the Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative of the Association of American Universities (AAU),7 and the Physics & Astronomy Department is regarded as a leader in educational reform on our campus.8 All of this would have been more difficult to achieve if we had not started a teacher preparation program and hired a physics education specialist to support it.

This leads to another important strategy for sustaining a teacher preparation program. Producing well-qualified science teachers who can help prepare the next generation for the challenges of the 21st century has proven to be something that campus administrators are eager to talk about with external constituencies. This is especially true at public institutions, which continually need to justify the expenditure of tax dollars. Research-intensive universities, whose mission statements typically say more about “serv[ing] as a center for research, scholarship and creativity” and “an unwavering commitment to excellence”9 than about providing services to the general public, are especially in need of concrete benefits of their work to point to in order to maintain political good will. It is therefore wise for the leaders of a teacher preparation program to keep their upper-level administrators fully apprised of the successes of the program and the service it provides to the public at large. Given the transience of university leaders, this is a never-ending task. Since 2007 when we began the physics teacher preparation program at UNC-CH as a joint effort of the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Education, we have had three Chancellors, three Provosts, two Deans of Education, two Deans of Arts & Sciences, and three Senior Associate Deans for Natural Sciences. That’s twelve administrators we have needed to educate on the benefits of our program (one Dean became Provost and only had to be reminded). However, all of them have been supportive and have been very happy to have good news to share with trustees, legislators, donors, alumni, parents, and other groups of stakeholders. This in turn disposes them to continue to sustain our program, establishing a feedback circuit that is beneficial for everyone.

Because of the small number of future physics teachers it will attract and the realities of university budgets, sustaining a physics teacher preparation program is not an easy matter on most campuses. However, by enlisting allies among other science departments, embedding the physics pedagogy course in the physics major curriculum, using the expertise of specialists hired for the program to improve the department’s own pedagogy, and keeping administrators supplied with information they can use to garner external support for the institution, it is possible for even a small program to continue in good health. Given the great need for more well-qualified high school physics teachers to teach physics to the next generation (and, not incidentally, the next crop of college students), establishing and maintaining a teacher preparation program is a worthwhile thing for a physics department to do.

Laurie McNeil is the Bernard Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has been a member of its Department of Physics and Astronomy since 1984. She was instrumental in establishing the UNC-BEST (UNC Baccalaureate Education in Science and Teaching) program, which graduated its first physics teachers in 2009.


1. Casey Langer Tesfaye and Susan White, High School Physics Teacher Preparation (American Institute of Physics, 2012). Available at:

2. National Center for Science & Engineering Statistics, NSF

3. David E. Meltzer, Monica Plisch and Stamatis Vokos, eds, Transforming the Preparation of Physics Teachers: A Call to Action. A Report by the Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics (American Physical Society 2012). Available at

4. Office of the Provost, UNC-CH

5. Educator Supply and Demand in the United States (American Society for Employment in Education, 2010)

6. Office of the Registrar, UNC-CH


8. See for an example of this recognition.

9. Mission statement of UNC-CH, see

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.