Cornell producing future high school physics teachers

Media Contact

Blaine Friedlander

Cornell physics and engineering majors don't traditionally consider high school teaching careers. But with what many call a crisis-level shortage of qualified physics teachers across the nation, Cornell is doing its part to help increase the pool.

A program to train, mentor and encourage undergraduates considering physics teaching is now in its third year at Cornell. The program, PhysTEC, is part of an effort by a national consortium of colleges and universities addressing the physics teacher shortage. Cornell is one of the coalition's four primary program institutions.

Funded by the American Physical Society and the Office of the Provost, Cornell's PhysTEC program gives select students from across the university an introduction to the intellectual and practical challenges of classroom teaching by hiring them as undergraduate teaching assistants (UTAs) in Cornell's introductory-level physics courses.

The students, who have expressed interest in becoming physics teachers, work with graduate TAs in developing lesson plans and in facilitating cooperative problem-solving sessions. They also attend a weekly seminar on concepts in teaching and learning. The seminars are led by Jim Overhiser, a veteran Cortland High School physics teacher who serves as the program's physics teacher in residence. Overhiser replaced Marty Alderman, who served as teacher in residence from 2007-09.

Professor of physics Robert Thorne, who co-leads the project with professor of education Deborah Trumbull, pointed out that physics is a prerequisite for science, engineering, technology and medical careers -- all critical to U.S. economic competitiveness. Yet, only one-third of high school students takes physics, according to the national PhysTEC organization, and only one-third of those who teach high school physics has a degree in it or in physics education. Even at a highly selective school like Cornell, Thorne sees an "incredible disparity" in high school physics preparation among his incoming students.

One reason why there is such a critical shortage of qualified physics teachers in the United States, Thorne said, is that most high school teachers are trained at tier 2 and tier 3 colleges and universities, which attract relatively fewer students who are strong in physics. Tier 1 schools like Cornell train very few teachers.

"If this problem is going to be solved, it has to be at tier 1 universities like Cornell," Thorne said. "We have to take the lead because we've got the students."

Much of that initiative is about creating a culture -- traditionally absent at such institutions -- that encourages and supports students who want to be high school teachers, he said.

In his weekly seminars, Overhiser goes over research about physics education, which includes cognitive psychology, or how the brain learns.

"The best practices for learning are contrary to the most common method of teaching, which is the lecture method," Overhiser explained. "Writing words down while I'm talking to you is not effective for promoting learning."

Students enrolled in the program say it has shaped how they think about learning in general, and physics in particular.

"Whenever I explain something to someone, whether it's physics related or not, I now spend a few minutes thinking of what I want to get across, and then a couple of different ways to do so," said Andrew Flye '11.

Tia Plautz '11 said she sees being a UTA as helping to "wipe clean the slate" for incoming students who might have negative perceptions or experiences with science, particularly physics.

"I am really excited about physics and my job, which I think is to help warm students up to physics, which is historically one of the hardest courses many students in the sciences are required to take," Plautz said.

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