It seems like a simple concept: Involve college physics departments in preparing future physics teachers. The American Physical Society (APS), the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), and the American Institute of Physics (AIP) are doing just that through the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC). Preservice teachers at 12 institutions of higher learning have benefited from the project.
“Our efforts are largely to find ways to bootstrap programs,” says Ted Hodapp, PhD, APS director of education and diversity. Hodapp also serves as principal investigator and project director of PhysTEC. “We require them to set up collaboration between the physics and education departments. We ask in the physics department that introductory courses be interactive, the kind of courses you’d want future physics teachers to teach. They (students) get to witness alternative pedagogies and how they’re presented.”
PhysTEC has several key components, including the use of master teachers, a learning assistant program, and a teacher advisory group. “There’s a variety of kinds of tools we use to make this more than the sum of its parts,” Hodapp says. “We make it easy for them (preservice teachers) to graduate in four years with degree, (ready to) teach high school physics.
“At each PhysTEC institution, there is a master teacher, a local teacher who goes in the physics department and mentors students and helps faculty on both sides understand what is going on in terms of preparation,” explains Hodapp. PhysTEC funds the master teacher position.
The learning assistant program gives students a chance to gain some “very early field experience in a safe environment,” he adds. As learning assistants, students work with faculty to act as “peer mentors” in a class they’ve recently completed. This helps them get a sense of whether they like teaching or not, according to Hodapp, an opportunity that attracts some preservice teachers to the program. The teacher advisory groups meet to discuss local-area problems facing educators and work with PhysTEC faculty to improve preservice education. The groups can also provide a support network for new teachers. Participating schools, he adds, work together and share information about what is working and what is not.
“We have very high retention rates for the first few years,” Hodapp says. “Eighty-seven percent after five years are still involved in schools, both as teachers and supervisors, in some way. Of those, 78% are in teaching.”
In addition to teacher retention, Hodapp expects other measurements will show the program’s positive effects. He hopes to complete in early 2009 a data analysis comparing the performance of students of PhysTEC teachers on the Force Concept Inventory (FCI) to that of students whose teachers have similar levels of experience but did not participate in a PhysTEC program. (FCI tests student understanding of the most basic concepts in Newtonian physics and evaluates the effectiveness of instruction.)
When accepting a college or university into the PhysTEC project, Hodapp says two factors must be considered: whether the institution can make a big change and whether it has support from the administration. He says it is uncommon to have “a physics department really interested in preparing high school teachers.” For example, he cites the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), a PhysTEC school: “As far as anybody knows, they had never produced a high school physics teacher.” UNC-CH joined the PhysTEC project following a call to action from the state’s governor to address a shortage of science teachers in North Carolina.
“Biggest thing about this program is backing by the professional societies,” Hodapp notes. “We are primarily the professional society of professional physicists. This is a solution to one of the largest problems facing society…We’re trying to ring the bell, get physics departments aware there is a problem and they can do something about it,” he concludes.
To learn more, visit www.phystec.org online.