Tuesday, February 19, 2013

JMU Physics Awarded PhysTEC Grant to Support Physics Teacher Education

JMU is about to become one of the newest PhysTEC-supported sites in a nationwide effort to improve and promote the training of physics teachers. As high school physics enrollments continue to climb, only around a third of high school physics teachers have a major in physics or physics education. In fact, a 2010 American Association for Employment in Education report ranked physics as the subject with the highest demand for teachers out of 60 subjects considered. 

As the shortage continues, there is a pressing need for inspired teachers with a solid foundation of physics content and insight into the challenges and opportunities unique to physics pedagogy.

With a $300k grant from PhysTEC (Physics Teacher Education Coalition), JMU will become the newest comprehensive site to address this need. The award was announced in 2012 to fund efforts implemented starting in Fall 2013 and is coordinated by a project team that includes collaboration among faculty in Physics & Astronomy (Brian Utter, Scott Paulson, Mark Mattson), Psychology (David Daniel), the College of Education (David Slykhuis), and Harrisonburg High School (Andy Jackson). The overarching goal is to offer a program in which students can explore teaching as an option, gain teaching experience, learn about physics pedagogy, and engage with a community of fellow students. A few of the main PhysTEC elements that will be implemented in Fall 2013 include:

• Physics Pedagogy Course: A two-credit 200-level physics teaching methods course developed by JMU Psychology Professor David Daniel, an expert in the science of learning and STEM education, in collaboration with local physics teachers, will be offered each fall. The class focuses on Pedagogical Content Knowledge -- that is, the study of effective teaching strategies specifically in the context of physics education. Topics such as metacognition, scaffolding, technology, conceptual change, and pre-conceptions are discussed in terms of the challenges in teaching and learning physics.

• Teacher in Residence: Each year, an experienced high school physics teacher will work for a year in residence in the Department of Physics and Astronomy as a local expert in high school physics teaching. As a front-lines expert, the TIR will serve as a voice of experience in the pedagogy course, a mentor for students interested in pursuing teaching, a liaison with the College of Education, and a motivator and organizer for the JMU physics teaching community.

• Learning Assistant Program: Beginning in 2011, introductory physics courses included a new way to grapple with the sometimes challenging concepts that students encounter in learning physics. Undergraduate Learning Assistants (LAs) were hired to facilitate weekly tutorials that focus on conceptual stumbling blocks that many students encounter. “Tutorials in Physics,” based on the work of the Physics Education Research group at the University of Washington, focuses on common hurdles in learning physics. In weekly prep meetings, LAs anticipate the likely problems and discuss strategies for facilitating the discussions. While primarily intended to improve the learning of students in introductory physics, the LA program offers the ideal way for sophomore physics majors to get teaching experience (and get paid!).

These are just a few of the many plans that are part of our PhysTEC program. We’re excited about these and other opportunities for our students that will be enabled by our collaboration with PhysTEC and we’re looking forward to a great start in the fall!

For additional information on JMU PhysTEC or the Secondary Education Track in Physics, please contact Dr. Brian Utter (utterbc@jmu.edu).