About 300 wide-eyed high school students watched Thursday evening in the Tate Lab of Physics as high school science teacher Claire Hypolite pulled a tablecloth from under a stack of dishes and jumped as a large metal barrel collapsed suddenly — and loudly — due simply to air pressure.
Shock and awe is one way to interest young people in physics, and the University of Minnesota’s Physics Force has been doing that for years.
But a new program is aiming to interest a different group — University students who could help remedy the shortage of science professionals by becoming high school physics teachers and improving physics teaching here at the University.
A national shortage of qualified high school physics teachers — two-thirds of new physics teachers lack a physics degree — spurred three professional physics organizations to form the national PhysTEC program, of which the University is a part.
Last year, the University received a three-year National Science Foundation grant to develop a program to recruit and improve the training of future physics teachers.
As part of the PhysTEC program, Jon Anderson is taking a year off from his usual job as a Centennial High School physics teacher to be a teacher-in-residence, an experienced high school teacher who spends a year at the University mentoring students interested in becoming teachers.
Anderson works with student learning assistants , who try on the physics teacher hat by working with small sections of large introductory physics courses at the University.
Learning assistant Jennifer Konigsburg, a psychology junior, has taught English as a Second Language and is also a psychology teaching assistant, but she said different challenges accompany physics education.
Getting students to overcome mental hurdles to understanding physics, like the perception of it as “difficult,” “un-fun” and “nerdy,” is the biggest challenge, she said.
“A lot of these students are really bright, but they just don’t feel confident in their understanding,” she said.
As a learning assistant, biology junior Marzieh Shafie is having her first teaching experience.
The toughest thing about it is dealing with students’ misconceptions.
“They don’t come into class with blank minds,” she said.
It’s tough, she said, “but I like the challenge; it is really rewarding when they do finally get it and the light bulb goes off.”
Anecdotally, Anderson said the learning assistants value the experience, and they’ve been well-received by both students and professors in the classes they help out with.
Konigsburg also said she’s gotten positive feedback from students in the classes. As for PhysTEC’s goal of developing more qualified physics teachers, she said, sparking interest in physics is the first step.
By getting introductory physics students engaged, “we’ve already helped out PhysTEC in its goals,” she said.
The PhysTEC program tries not only to engage physics students in teaching, but also to engage future teachers in physics.
To that end, Anderson teaches a lab-based physics course for future elementary school teachers.
Physics professor and PhysTEC grant principal investigator Cynthia Cattell said the idea is to attack the pipeline in different places. If students are turned off to physics in elementary school, she said, it’ll be tough to get them interested later.
“You want to make sure the teaching of physical science they get in elementary school is interesting and exciting,” she added.
Cattell wants people to know that teaching physics is fun.
“It’s challenging, something new almost every day,” she said.
As potential physics teaching students advance, the PhysTEC program will develop other teaching activities.
However, Cattell said they’ll need additional, ongoing funding to keep the program running after the three-year NSF grant expires in the summer of 2010.
Shafie would like to see that happen.
“I hope they can expand it and provide [learning assistants] for other classes,” she said.