Multiple Grant Opportunities Aimed at Expanding Physics Education for Future High School Teachers

A new partnership between the College’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and faculty in UA’s College of Education is aimed at improving the training of high school physics teachers in Alabama. The partnership is the result of two funding opportunities: a five-year $8 million Alliance for Physics Excellence Program (APEX) grant from the National Science Foundation and a three-year $300,000 grant from the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC).

According to Dr. J.W. Harrell, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, there is a nationwide shortage of qualified high school physics teachers. The situation is especially dire in Alabama where more than 25 percent of high school students attend school where physics is not offered, and only a small fraction of those teachers have a major or minor in physics.

The PhysTEC grant provides funding for a teacher-in-residence, a current high school teacher who spends one year in the College’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and helps recruit and mentor undergraduates interested in becoming physics teachers. This year’s teacher-in-residence is Penni Wallace from Hillcrest High School in the Tuscaloosa County School System. She co-teaches courses in the department and helps to promote high school physics teaching as a career choice.

A second component of the program is funding for learning assistants, who are mostly undergraduate physics students who help in the teaching of introductory physics courses. About one-half of the introductory level courses taught in the department are done studio style, where a class of 50-60 students work in smaller groups on more activity-oriented topics. The learning assistants take a physics pedagogy course taught by physics faculty members that helps them to assist in these studio-style courses. Learning assistants are also given the chance to go out to local schools and assist in teaching there.

While the PhysTEC funding only covers three years, the College of Arts and Science and the College of Education have committed to fund the teacher-in-residence for an additional three years to give the program the best possible chance for success.

The five-year APEX grant was awarded to Alabama A&M University, who partnered with UA to train in-service high school teachers and specialists with the Science in Motion program. The Science in Motion program is a mobile science resource that brings laboratory experiences to schools and teachers all over the state, and one of its primary sites is UA.

The APEX grant also provides scholarship opportunities to students at the undergraduate and graduate level who are pursuing physics education certification. UA is also responsible for evaluating the effectiveness of the APEX project. Dr. Dennis Sunal, a UA professor of secondary education, will lead this effort. Sunal is partnering with Harrell on both the APEX and PhysTEC projects.

These complimentary funding programs, along with the increase in the number and quality of undergraduate students coming into the College’s physics program, have the potential to significantly impact high school physics teaching in Alabama, Harrell believes.

“Until we get better teachers, we can’t get high school students turned on to physics like we need to,” he said. “And anything we can do to produce more physics educators will help.”