JMU addresses shortage of high school physics teachers


As the clock nears 12:20, students slowly trickle into physics classroom 2212. Behind a green table at the front of the classroom, professors Brian Utter and Thomas O'Neill consult problems in a workbook.

Against one wall, three students hold a very similar conversation, pointing to problems in the workbook and talking in quiet voices. They are the Learning Assistants for the class, responsible for supporting and teaching their fellow students during class time.

After the normal announcements concerning a test on Wednesday and important material to study, Utter calls the class to order. He and O'Neill instruct the class to turn to a set of problems in their workbooks.

"Can I have that piece of expensive physics equipment there?" O'Neill asks a student in the first row. The student smirks and hands over a cardboard ramp, a ruler and a plastic ball. O'Neill grins and tells the class that they will be using this equipment to conduct one of the experiments described in the workbook.

He then turns to the three students lined up against the wall. "Assist learning!" he commands.

The room breaks out into a frenzy of noise and movement. Students split off into groups of three or four, clustering around tables with workbooks, dry-erase boards and calculators.

There is not a hint of lecture or sight of PowerPoint. The whiteboard remains conspicuously blank. Professors and Learning Assistants wander amongst the tables giving advice or checking in on the work of various groups.

This odd classroom format is pretty common to the Physics 240 students and is known as a flipped classroom.

"A flipped classroom is where, in class, the students solve problems," Tyler Stephens, a sophomore in the Learning Assistant program, explains. He notes that students learn what is commonly thought of as lecture material in videos outside of class, while doing problems in the workbook in class. He and other students who have already taken classes like Physics 240 work with current students to explain difficult physics principles. In this format, students watch videos outside of class to learn the concepts, then put them into practice inside the classroom.

But there's more going on behind the scenes of this physics classroom. Tyler and other Learning Assistants are part of a larger program at JMU known as the Physics Teacher Education Coalition, or PhysTEC.

Utter, an associate professor of physics and astronomy and the PhysTEC Site Leader explains, "[The program is] funded by a couple big professional organizations in physics: The American Physical Society, which is the main organization in physics, and the American Association of Physics Teachers, which is the main high school and college physics teaching organization. Basically, it's a joint program between them to support the production of highly trained, highly qualified physics teachers."

And these teachers are sorely needed across the nation. According to the PhysTEC website, high school students have a less than 40 percent chance of being taught physics by someone with a degree in physics. Those who majored in physics are stretched so thin they may be the only physics teacher at their entire school or are asked to teach across multiple science disciplines.

"My whole science department could fit around one table," O'Neill remembers of his time as a high school physics teacher. "I was the physics teacher, the chemistry teacher and the computer science teacher all at one time."

Crafting resources for physics education

The challenge is often reaching out and getting information to potential physics majors. Education departments tend to reach out to liberal arts majors, and many physics majors are unaware of the requirements to graduate with a degree in physics in secondary education. "It brings the idea of a teaching career to people in the physics, chemistry and engineering department who would not normally think of that right off the top of their skull," O'Neill says of the PhysTEC program.

Utter notes that if a student wants to do research in physics, the department has professors and labs for the student to get that kind of experience. But if a student wanted to become a teacher, the department used to have fewer options for giving them experience. Due to PhysTEC, resources like a physics pedagogy course and a teacher in residence are now available to students interested in teaching physics.

This year, O'Neill works as JMU's Teacher in Residence, a position that goes to a current or former high school physics teacher and acts as a source of information for physics majors wishing to go into education.

"A lot of the stories he has to tell, a lot of his methods, are very, very useful. I'm trying to learn by example from him on a lot," Tyler says.

"The Teacher in Residence is the biggest piece," Utter says of the PhysTEC program here at JMU. The program relies heavily on the ability of current teachers to inspire future physics teachers.

"My high school physics teacher really inspired me to do physics," Tyler recalls. His teacher focused heavily on projects and even hosted a cardboard boat-building contest every year, in which students would strive to build boats out of only cardboard, duct tape and trash bags that could support a person. "I didn't think it was very rare until I came to college and heard about some other people's experiences," Tyler continues, "and hearing that made me want to try and make a difference."

"Most people who come in excited about teaching basically had a really good physics teacher," Utter says, "so we want to take those and put those people back into the community."

Undertaking PhysTEC

In August 2012, Utter, along with Drs. David B. Daniel, Mark E. Mattson, Scott A. Paulson and David A. Slykhuis, received a grant from the Physics Teacher Education Coalition to establish a program for training high school physics teachers at JMU.

To become a supported site of the program, JMU had to meet a number of key components, including a Teacher in Residence, a Learning Assistant program, collaboration between the physics and education departments, active recruitment of undergraduates into the program and a physics pedagogy course that focuses on the theories of teaching physics.

The grant-supported program is currently in its second year and has already seen promising results. "As a university, we hadn't produced any physics teachers since I had been here. And suddenly, last year, we had two come out of our master's program," Utter recalls.

This may seem like a small number, but Utter is quick to point out that when he applied for the grant, the number of physics teachers with degrees in the field in the entire state was about ten. "Coming from zero to two when compared with eight or ten is pretty substantial," he says.

This is especially important, as the PhysTEC website notes that approximately five out of every six PhysTEC graduates will go on to teach within 200 miles of their university.

For the Learning Assistants, many of whom will go on to teach physics after graduation, the program provides a number of benefits. They receive training and real-world teaching experiences, a salary for their time assisting physics classes, and invaluable physics knowledge.

"It's sort of a fallout that we didn't count on," O'Neill says. "The fact of the matter is that if you're a Learning Assistant, you learn a lot of physics as you teach other people physics and it strengthens your physics."

Of course, being a Learning Assistant does come with its own challenges. Senior Learning Assistant Kerlin Doss says, "I think the hardest has been not giving them the answer directly. Because one thing we want to do is that if they're on the wrong track, let them figure it out themselves, that way it really sticks."

These challenges eventually prepare the students for teaching jobs in the real world. Devon Collins, a graduate of the program who currently teaches in Henrico County near Richmond, uses much of what he was taught every day. "Everything that I learned … I regularly apply in my classes." 

Utter hopes that, over time, JMU will be able to develop a community of high school physics teachers who have graduated from the program. "For instance, there's a Virginia Academy of Science Teachers meeting. My hope is that someday I go to that meeting, and I see a whole bunch of physics teachers that came through our program that all have connections not just to us but with each other on different levels."

 Returning to the classroom

In the last ten minutes of class, O'Neill calls the students back to order. For a brief period, the class resembles the normal expectations of a physics lesson. O'Neill writes equations on the board, explaining why and how they work.

But the students aren't taking notes. They've already done the work that proves these equations correct, and this bit of lecture is merely an overview.

O'Neill turns away from the board and back to the class, capping the dry-erase marker with a snap. He confidently declares, "Since we have achieved maximum entropy, I think we can declare victory and go home."

January 29, 2015

By Jessica Bur ('15) JMU Public Affairs

Published: Thursday, January 29, 2015

Last Updated: Thursday, October 20, 2016

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