Incorporating Virtual Panels Into a Physics Course for Future Teachers: One Teaching Team’s Experience
Isabel F. Mills, SMATE Program, Western Washington University
Dimitri R. Dounas-Frazer, SMATE Program, Western Washington University
Here, we describe our experience incorporating virtual panels in two sections of an introductory physics course for future teachers. The article is split into two parts. First, Dimitri (the instructor of record) describes the motivation and preparation for the panels. Next, Isabel (the teaching assistant) describes our implementation and the students’ responses.
Motivation and preparation (Dimitri)
When I started working at Western Washington University in January 2019, I embraced a new-to-me teaching principle: knowing physics means knowing who physicists are, what they do, how they do it, and why. After floating an idea with anti-oppression consultant Regan Byrd—with whom I was then in an accountability partnership—I began implementing a featured physicist activity in the classes I teach [1-3]. The activity involves short in-class presentations about women and nonbinary physicists, mostly women of color. The featured physicist activity supports me in disrupting the incorrect perception that all physicists are white men—a perception that, as a white man myself, I unintentionally reinforce through my presence in the classroom.
I recently embraced another new-to-me teaching principle: students need dedicated time at the end of the term to process what they learned. Accordingly, I have stopped introducing new content during the last week of class. Instead, I now aim to create opportunities for students to revisit ideas from class. Last fall, I taught two sections of a physics course for future teachers, each culminating in a four-person panel during which students could engage with panelists about ideas from class. Panelists were men and women from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds with at least a bachelor’s degree in physics, geophysics, or astronomy. The panels helped me align my teaching practice with both of my new principles: providing students with end-of-term synthesis time and teaching them about the ‘who, how, and why’ of physics.
When organizing the panels, I reached out to my personal network for recommendations, and I contacted several of the people whom I featured in class even though I had never met them before. I was upfront with people about the fact that I could not pay them for their time, energy, and expertise. I offered to write (and followed through with writing) letters on official letterhead acknowledging their contributions to science education and teacher preparation in the State of Washington. The following people agreed to be panelists: physics researchers Moumita Das and Munazza Alam; education researchers Charles Ramey II and Johan Tabora; secondary teachers Bouakham Sriri Perez and Tamia Williams; Alma Robinson, a teacher in residence; and Harjit Singh, a community organizer.
Throughout the planning process, I regularly updated Isabel about progress and copied her on key messages between me and the panelists. Once all panelists had confirmed their participation, Isabel and I worked together to implement the panels and support students in preparing for them.
Implementation and responses (Isabel)
Students used one class period to research the panelists and form relevant questions for them. Afterwards, Dimitri and I collected all the students’ questions into a question bank for students to refer to during the panels. In order to best facilitate a powerful learning experience, we modified the questions to be consistent with our expectation of meaningful engagement between students and panelists. Prior to the panel, we shared the question bank with panelists.
On the day of the panel, Dimitri and I read short bios for each panelist when introducing them, and we prompted them to describe any current projects they were working on. Students then had the opportunity to virtually raise their hand and ask spontaneous questions or pull questions from the bank. Panels lasted one hour, leaving time for about three student-led questions in one panel and about six in the other. Students inquired about topics ranging from issues of identity in the fields of physics and education, strategies for engaging young learners in physics, and impacts of virtual learning on students. Panelists and students engaged energetically and thoughtfully throughout the panel.
After the panel, students were asked to write commentaries about the activity. In their commentaries, most students expressed that participating in the panel was a new and enjoyable experience for them. As I read the responses, I observed two themes common among the majority of students. First, students voiced appreciation for the panelists’ commitment to reducing the fear of physics that many students feel when entering the classroom. Second, most students drew meaning from the personal stories the panelists told about their physics journeys in relation to their identities. Some students described the significance of seeing their own identities represented among the panelists, while others indicated that the intersection of physics and identity was a new concept for them. Below is an excerpt from one student’s commentary (shared with permission):
“Throughout my student years, kindergarten through 12th grade, I have only had one teacher that wasn’t white. So to see these panelists, who also served in the education field, kind of just proved to me that I do belong there. Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure about what this panel would entail but it was an incredible experience, that I will never forget. It also gave me a lot of hope and it truly inspired me to be that representation to future generations.” ~ Jennifer Escobar Lopez
Conclusion (Isabel and Dimitri)
We are grateful to the panelists for volunteering their time and energy, without which the panel would not have been possible. Further, we thank Alma Robinson for providing us with the encouragement and opportunity to externalize our experience in the FEd Newsletter. We look forward to continuing to learn from and with physics educators about how to humanize physics education.
Isabel F. Mills is a Graduate Student in the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University and a Teaching Assistant in the Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education (SMATE) Program. She is pursuing a master's in teaching with a physics endorsement. Her anticipated graduation date is June 2022.
Dimitri R. Dounas-Frazer is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy and of Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education at Western Washington University. He specializes in physics education research, with an emphasis on understanding and describing student and instructor experiences in laboratory courses. Through the WWU SMATE Program, Dr. Dounas-Frazer teaches introductory physics to aspiring K-5 teachers.
 Regan Byrd Consulting, www.reganbyrdconsulting.com.
 D. R. Dounas-Frazer, R. Byrd, and S. A. Hyater-Adams, “A model for self-accountability in academia,” PERCoGS Newsletter 14, 4 (2018).
 A. Agrawal, “Featuring Diverse Physicists,” Optics & Photonics News 31, 22 (2020).