PhysTEC at Virginia Tech: The Importance of Engineering

John H. Simonetti, Department of Physics, Virginia Tech
Brenda Brand, School of Education, Virginia Tech
George Glasson, School of Education, Virginia Tech


A competition robot made by local high school students with the help of college student mentors.

Matt Libuit photo

Matt Libuit (left), physics teacher with a degree in Engineering Science and Mechanics, assists classmates with design activity

The PhysTEC program at Virginia Tech (VT) involves a variety of collaborations between the Department of Physics, the College of Engineering, and the School of Education. These collaborations provide undergraduate physics and engineering students with multiple pre-service teaching experiences that increase the probability that they will find teaching to be a viable and interesting career choice. At Virginia Tech, our pre-service physics teachers complete an undergraduate degree in physics or engineering and then obtain a Master of Arts in Education (MAEd) from the School of Education. Throughout their undergraduate and graduate education, students benefit from these partnerships in ways uncommon to other PhysTEC programs. Perhaps seeking similar collaborations at your institution could prove beneficial.

Potential PhysTEC students at VT often start out pursuing a standard physics or engineering degree. Many of them do not start their formal education courses or pursuit of licensure until they have nearly completed their bachelor’s degree in physics or engineering and enter the graduate program in the School of Education. This leaves us with two hurdles to overcome in our recruitment and education of future secondary school physics teachers: (1) How do we spark the interest of undergraduate physics or engineering students in teaching before they obtain their undergraduate degree? And, (2) How do we alleviate the worry that students (and parents) may have about paying tuition for additional years of education beyond their undergraduate degree?

Perhaps surprisingly, at least some of the answers to these questions come from the presence of a large and successful College of Engineering (COE) at Virginia Tech. Undergraduate COE students account for about 30% of the undergraduate student body at VT. All General Engineering students — students entering the COE — must take two semesters of introductory physics starting in the spring of their freshman year. In the Spring 2015 semester, the Physics Department taught over 1800 engineering students, in total, across both parts of the two-semester introductory physics sequence. As a result, the Physics Department obtains a large number of Graduate Teaching Assistantships (GTAs) from the university — partly funded by the COE — for use in conducting recitation and laboratory sections for these students.

Because we are allocated more GTA positions than we have physics graduate students who need them, we can award some of these GTAs to our PhysTEC MAEd students. Thus, we offer complete tuition coverage plus a monthly stipend to our PhysTEC students during their post-bachelorette academic year while they pursue their MAEd and licensure. Having this GTA award removes the financial burden of obtaining a graduate degree.

We realize that you may not have a large school of engineering your institution, however, so our GTA solution to alleviating the financial burden of pursuing a master’s degree may not be viable for you or your students. But there are other ways in which the presence of the COE helps with our recruitment and overall program. Further, these ways fall more into the realm of direct collaboration. First, the sheer number of undergraduate engineering students taking physics helps with recruitment. Our Undergraduate Advising Coordinator spreads the word about our PhysTEC activities, through personal contact, with the advisers in the College of Engineering. When engineering students express interest in becoming physics teachers, our Teacher in Residence (TIR), Alma Robinson, meets with them to discuss our PhysTEC program and helps them navigate through all the required coursework needed to enter the MAEd program.

Our TIR also created the Enriched Physics Outreach course (now in the course catalog), in which undergraduate students work with K-12 science and physics teachers to construct and carry out lesson plans in science classes. The Enriched Physics Outreach course is an extension of our Physics Outreach course, and both attract physics students into PhysTEC. The Enriched Physics Outreach course is counted by the COE as fulfilling a “technical elective” requirement for COE students, and we have had success in recruiting engineering students into the MAEd program through this course. The Physics Learning Assistant (LA) program is also open to engineering students. In fact, one of our engineering LAs has just obtained his MAEd. As a result of all these efforts, we have had a small but steady increase in the number of engineering students participating in PhysTEC activities over the past few years. And, some of these students have enrolled in the MAEd program — with the support of a GTA from the Physics Department.

With the focus of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) on the intersection between science and engineering, future physics teachers are being prepared in the MAEd program to teach engineering design lessons in the K-12 schools. In the science methods class, taught by one of the authors (Glasson), pre-service science and mathematics teachers are collaborating to develop Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics (STEM) lesson plans that are inclusive of both physics and engineering design principles. The pre-service physics teachers who either have an engineering background or who participated in the FIRST Robotics program take a leadership role in class by assisting other students in developing lessons that engage K-12 students in problem-solving design activities.

Finally, the “crown jewel” in our collaborative efforts with Engineering is the Robotics Program. This program is a senior-level Mechanical Engineering technical elective course, in which engineering students utilize their training in the engineering design process to work with high school students to design and build a robot for competition in the national First Robotics program. Through the efforts of one of the authors (Brand), Engineering has accepted Physics majors into this course. And those students have been quite enthusiastic about their experience! Of course, this experience can help to cement a student’s interest in working with high school students. Thus, this course acts as another recruitment tool into PhysTEC from the pool of physics majors. One recent graduate from the MAEd program has started a First Robotics program at the high school where he now teaches. Interestingly, when his parents saw him interacting with his team of high school students at a regional First Robotics competition, they said they were now completely convinced that their son’s pursuit of a teaching career was a great choice.

John Simonetti is a Professor and the Associate Chair in the Department of Physics at Virginia Tech. He is the site leader for the VT PhysTEC project. Brenda Brand is an Associate Professor in Science Education at Virginia Tech. She is the coordinator of the MCPS/VT Robotics Collaborative. George Glasson is Professor and Program Leader of the MAED Secondary Science Licensure Program in the School of Education at Virginia Tech. He is a Co-PI on the VT PhysTEC project.

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.