U.Va. Physics Education Program Inspires Teachers

Aug. 16, 2007 -- “Physics teachers need to talk to physics teachers,” said Chris Hahn, a high school physics teacher from Frederick, Md., as he stood in a lab full of physics teachers at U.Va.’s physics department. Hahn earned a master's degree in physics education from U.Va. in 2005, and has since returned as a summer lab instructor, assisting other working teachers in the master's program.

Before enrolling in the program, Hahn had little opportunity to talk with other physics teachers. He is the only physics teacher in his school.

Nationwide and in Virginia, there is a shortage of teachers in science and mathematics, and a critical shortage of physics teachers. U.Va. physics professors Steve Thornton and Richard Lindgren are working hard to change that. Since the early 1990s they have worked tirelessly to address this shortage. Thornton and Lindgren’s outreach to local schools has grown through an assortment of programs – including physics road shows, an annual physics day show and specialized courses for teachers – into the master of arts in physics education program for working teachers like Hahn.

Currently there are 70 candidates in the program, which requires 16 distance-learning credits and 14 credits earned during two four-week summer sessions at U.Va. In the summers, students are housed in dorms on Grounds. The degree is earned from the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, but courses are taken through the School of Continuing and Professional Studies. The degree program was established in consultation with the Curry School of Education.

Thornton and Lindgren serve as program administrators and instructors. A small corps of veteran high school physics teachers, like Hahn, serve as teaching assistants both in the summer and during the academic year. About half of the students are teachers from schools outside of Virginia. One student currently is in Iraq with the National Guard (he wasn’t able to attend this summer’s session); another is a teacher with a Department of Defense school in Germany.

“Our students learn about this program largely through word of mouth among teachers and through the Internet,” said Thornton. “We are offering something nobody else offers: a chance to continue work as a teacher while earning a master’s degree for teaching in a critical shortage area.”

One of those students is Kelli McIntosh, a physics teacher from Walkersville, Md. She learned about the U.Va. program from Hahn, who teaches in the same county.

“This program is exactly what I was looking for,” she said. “I’m able to earn a master’s degree while working with and learning from other physics teachers. It’s a great learning environment.”
Some of the teachers in the program teach math or other sciences, but are not qualified to teach physics. The program allows them to get the requisite physics credits needed to become “endorsed” to teach the subject. And the graduate degree means a bigger paycheck.

For people who already are qualified to teach physics, the program inspires fresh ideas and techniques for putting difficult concepts into vivid lessons designed to excite teenagers. There are plenty of hands-on demonstrations to show physics principles in action.

A few of the students in the program are not even teachers – yet. Rob Lucas, 53, an engineer who has worked in the field of fiber optics for corporations and start-up companies for more than 25 years, plans to bring his real-world experience into the classroom when he completes his degree.

“I’ve been using applied physics throughout my career, and I can use my experience to help kids develop their analytical skills,” he said. “This program allows me to interact with teachers and learn about what works and what doesn’t work in the classroom. My combination of work experience and the training I’ve received in this program will really help me to motivate my students and help them to be better problem solvers.”

This is exactly what Thornton and Lindgren are trying to do for all of the student-teachers in the program.

“We’re teaching concepts and how to apply them,” Lindgren said. “And our teachers learn from us and from each other how to teach those difficult concepts in ways that will really benefit their students.”

 For more information, visit: http://galileo.phys.virginia.edu/outreach/ProfessionalDevelopment