WMU News

$5 million effort to up ranks of physics educators

Sept. 18, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- Western Michigan University is one of six universities nationwide that will participate in a five-year, multimillion-dollar effort to increase the ranks of physics teachers in America's elementary and secondary schools.

WMU will take part in the Physics Teacher Coalition, dubbed PhysTEC, an initiative of the American Physical Society, American Association of Physics Teachers and the American Institute of Physics that has received $5.76 million in funding from the National Science Foundation. PhysTEC aims to increase the number of physics educators at the elementary and secondary school levels by improving the science preparation and teaching skills these teachers receive as students and to focus on retention of physics educators.

WMU's efforts with the PhysTEC initiative will concentrate on improving preparation of middle and high school physics teachers. The University's Institute for Science Education, Department of Physics and College of Education will collaborate to revamp introductory college physics courses and develop a model for use by other institutions of higher education.

According to Dr. Robert H. Poel, director of the Center for Science Education, recruitment and retention of elementary and secondary physics teachers is a critical need in the nation's schools.

"There are two reasons why college students don't choose to become physics teachers. One is that the introductory college course in physics often causes them to leave the program early," Poel explains. "Also, physics teachers make lower pay than their peers in industry and the student-parent culture they encounter can be discouraging."

The modifications being considered by WMU for the introductory college physics courses include using inquiry-based strategies and interactive technologies as well as integrating hands-on approaches to teaching and learning.

WMU's program also will feature a Teacher-in-Residence component, in which an area high school teacher will join the PhysTEC program on a yearly basis to provide "a reality check of what we are doing," says Poel.

Frederick Stein, director of education and outreach for the American Physical Society, says the PhysTEC initiative will produce science teachers who are "committed to student-centered, inquiry-based, hands-on approaches to teaching from the moment they hit the classroom."

According to Poel, WMU was chosen to participate based on its strong history as a "primary teacher training institution" and the Center for Science Education's experience with AAPT in developing a course model for preparing future elementary educators to teach the physical sciences. The other institutions chosen to participate in the program are Ball State and Oregon State universities, the University of Arizona, the University of Arkansas, and Xavier University of Louisiana.

"We'll be building on work we've already done on the elementary level," Poel says of WMU's PhysTEC efforts. "We will be extending what we learned in developing that but also focusing on retention efforts by developing ways to help support future teachers while they are still students and during their first and second years of teaching."

Other WMU faculty who will be working on the PhysTEC initiative are Dr. Marcia Fetters, assistant professor of teaching, learning and leadership, and Dr. William Cobern, associate dean of the College of Education, and Department of Physics faculty members Drs. Alvin Rosenthal, Clement Burns, Lisa Paulius, Paul V. Pancella, Nora Berrah as well as Dr. John Tanis, chairperson of the Department of Physics.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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