Sustaining Your PhysTEC Effort After the Initial Funding: A Case Study
John Simonetti, Department of Physics, Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech is a major research university and a land grant institution with a large engineering school. It is also a comprehensive Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) site, having been so since 2011. The first three years were funded by a PhysTEC grant, but the program has been supported entirely by the College of Science and the University since 2014. For a number of years, including years after the initial funding, Virginia Tech’s PhysTEC program has been a member of PhysTEC’s “5+ Club” for graduating at least five students with physics (or related) degrees prepared to teach physics at the high school level. While most PhysTEC programs have their own somewhat unique situations, and Virginia Tech is no exception, you may learn something useful from our experience for thinking about how to sustain your PhysTEC program after its initial funding period.
Most of the funding from the PhysTEC grant was used to support the Teacher in Residence (TIR). Without a doubt, the success of our program can be traced to the superlative TIRs we have had (Alma Robinson and Mary Norris). Because much of our continuing success depends on the work of the TIR, we found that it was particularly important to find a way to sustain the TIR following the initial grant funding. In this article, we will elaborate on how the current role of our TIR and the implementation of our other teaching initiatives have contributed to the sustainability of our PhysTEC program.
Following the initial three years of grant funding, the TIR position has been supported by the College of Science. The first three of those additional years of support were required by Virginia Tech’s initial agreement with PhysTEC, and the department argued, successfully, that it continued to need Robinson’s efforts. Her position is as an instructor in the department, which includes teaching both physics and physics teaching and learning courses (courses she has created), as well as serving the department on committees and advising our Society of Physics Students. Instructors are faculty not on the tenure-track route, and Robinson has been acting as the TIR under this instructor position.
Robinson’s responsibilities as TIR are so intertwined with her work as an instructor that there is no distinction, really. She has been doing all the work she did as TIR, but just has a different title. She teaches a section of introductory calculus-based physics for physics majors in a SCALE-UP classroom using interactive pedagogy, which models how we wish our students to teach and learn. Simonetti, the PhysTEC site director, teaches the other section in a different SCALE-UP classroom. In effect we are team teaching the freshman physics majors. We also team teach Seminar for Physics Majors, a First Year Experience (FYE) course that meshes, in some ways, with introductory physics. For the FYE course, all of the first year students (freshman and transfers) are in the same classroom. Thus, we are the “face of Virginia Tech physics” for the freshman physics majors (in addition to student advisors). In both courses we stress student-centered pedagogy, active learning, and the importance of teaching (e.g., your peers) as a way to learn the physics. And, since the FYE course discusses research opportunities, internship opportunities, and career opportunities, careers in teaching naturally come up frequently. Robinson created and teaches the Physics Teaching and Learning course and the Enriched Physics Outreach course, which are courses that came into existence because of PhysTEC and described in more detail below. Finally, Robinson also serves as a mentor to any students who want to know more about teaching or our teaching programs, or who pursue the Master of Arts in Education degree with a physics emphasis.
So, some of our success is that the TIR position has not changed dramatically after the funding period. This is partly because the department is very supportive or our PhysTEC efforts and very happy with Robinson’s contributions to the department. But it is also important to note that the PhysTEC program has always been under the leadership of someone in the administration of the department (Simonetti is Associate Chair), so there is no need to convince the department leadership of the need to sustain the program, as apparently happens at other institutions. Perhaps we have a "happy situation" here.
We have three additional thriving aspects of the PhysTEC program which help its continued success. One is the Learning Assistant (LA) Program, in which undergraduate students get experience as undergraduate "teaching assistants" in a variety of courses (introductory courses, both calculus-based and algebra-based, and more advanced courses, up to junior level courses), and in a variety of ways (running introductory astronomy labs, assisting in peer-instruction during lectures, running review sessions, or providing office hours). We typically have about a dozen LAs each semester. Robinson and Simonetti administer the LA Program: accepting applications, getting requests from faculty for LAs, assigning LAs, and organizing a final presentation day at which the LAs tell us about their experiences. LAs earn Independent Study course credit for their work as an LA, so funding is not required. They must also take the Physics Teaching and Learning course that Robinson designed and teaches each Fall, so the LAs are well prepared for their work. Of course, this early teaching experience is often the catalyst for LAs to consider becoming secondary school teachers. And faculty benefit from the help provided by the trained LAs.
Another successful aspect of our program is the Physics Outreach program, a course where undergraduates go to neighboring schools (elementary, middle, and high schools) and perform demonstrations and engage the students in learning about physics. It is a long running program of ours which has also turned some students on to teaching. Robinson created a second course, Enriched Physics Outreach, for those students who wanted to pursue this effort in a deeper way, working with her and the local teachers to design lesson plans for topics those teachers want or need to provide for their students.
Lastly, for many years the department has been able to offer Graduate Teaching Assistantships to physics students (and engineering students) who want to pursue a Master of Arts in Education (MAEd) at Virginia Tech following their undergraduate degree. With an MAEd degree, our graduates obtain licensure to teach physics in Virginia, are more competitive candidates in their job searches, and earn a higher starting salary. We have this ability to provide teaching assistantships to our MAEd students because of the large number of undergraduate engineering students taking introductory physics; many teaching assistants are required to cover the laboratory and recitation sections of the introductory courses, and we don’t have enough physics graduate students for the task! Robinson and Simonetti advertise this opportunity to our majors, and often employ the MAEd students as the teaching assistants for our freshman physics majors. Each year we both serve on the graduate student committees of many of our MAEd students, showing that the pipeline of students getting degrees in physics and moving into the MAEd program, with funding, underlines a very productive and congenial working relationship between the Department of Physics and the School of Education here at Virginia Tech. Indeed, this relationship pre-dates PhysTEC. Our PhysTEC program is actually a joint effort of both Physics and the School of Education. So, the last piece of our success is the cultivation of such campus-wide relationships. May you have such relationships and experience a sustainable PhysTEC program as well!
John Simonetti has a Ph.D. in Astronomy and Space Sciences from Cornell University. He is the Associate Chair of the Physics Department at Virginia Tech, and the PhysTEC site director there. He has been a faculty member at Virginia Tech for 32 years. His research interests lie in testing frontier ideas in gravitation and particle physics in the astrophysical realm.