U takes part in effort to improve physics teaching

About 300 wide-eyed high school students watched Thursday evening in the Tate Lab of Physics as high school science teacher Claire Hypolite pulled a tablecloth from under a stack of dishes and jumped as a large metal barrel collapsed suddenly âÄî and loudly âÄî due simply to air pressure. Shock and awe is one way to interest young people in physics, and the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Physics Force has been doing that for years. But a new program is aiming to interest a different group âÄî University students who could help remedy the shortage of science professionals by becoming high school physics teachers and improving physics teaching here at the University. A national shortage of qualified high school physics teachers âÄî two-thirds of new physics teachers lack a physics degree âÄî spurred three professional physics organizations to form the national PhysTEC program, of which the University is a part. Last year, the University received a three-year National Science Foundation grant to develop a program to recruit and improve the training of future physics teachers. As part of the PhysTEC program, Jon Anderson is taking a year off from his usual job as a Centennial High School physics teacher to be a teacher-in-residence, an experienced high school teacher who spends a year at the University mentoring students interested in becoming teachers. Anderson works with student learning assistants , who try on the physics teacher hat by working with small sections of large introductory physics courses at the University. Learning assistant Jennifer Konigsburg, a psychology junior, has taught English as a Second Language and is also a psychology teaching assistant, but she said different challenges accompany physics education. Getting students to overcome mental hurdles to understanding physics, like the perception of it as âÄúdifficult,âÄù âÄúun-funâÄù and âÄúnerdy,âÄù is the biggest challenge, she said. âÄúA lot of these students are really bright, but they just donâÄôt feel confident in their understanding,âÄù she said. As a learning assistant, biology junior Marzieh Shafie is having her first teaching experience. The toughest thing about it is dealing with studentsâÄô misconceptions. âÄúThey donâÄôt come into class with blank minds,âÄù she said. ItâÄôs tough, she said, âÄúbut I like the challenge; it is really rewarding when they do finally get it and the light bulb goes off.âÄù Anecdotally, Anderson said the learning assistants value the experience, and theyâÄôve been well-received by both students and professors in the classes they help out with. Konigsburg also said sheâÄôs gotten positive feedback from students in the classes. As for PhysTECâÄôs goal of developing more qualified physics teachers, she said, sparking interest in physics is the first step. By getting introductory physics students engaged, âÄúweâÄôve already helped out PhysTEC in its goals,âÄù she said. The PhysTEC program tries not only to engage physics students in teaching, but also to engage future teachers in physics. To that end, Anderson teaches a lab-based physics course for future elementary school teachers. Physics professor and PhysTEC grant principal investigator Cynthia Cattell said the idea is to attack the pipeline in different places. If students are turned off to physics in elementary school, she said, itâÄôll be tough to get them interested later. âÄúYou want to make sure the teaching of physical science they get in elementary school is interesting and exciting,âÄù she added. Cattell wants people to know that teaching physics is fun. âÄúItâÄôs challenging, something new almost every day,âÄù she said. As potential physics teaching students advance, the PhysTEC program will develop other teaching activities. However, Cattell said theyâÄôll need additional, ongoing funding to keep the program running after the three-year NSF grant expires in the summer of 2010. Shafie would like to see that happen. âÄúI hope they can expand it and provide [learning assistants] for other classes,âÄù she said.