Engaging Physics Teachers and Students at All Levels: Dr. Gay B. Stewart, University of Arkansas

Dr. Gay B. Stewart, Associate Professor of Physics, has been instrumental in the transformation of the Department of Physics at the University of Arkansas. She has developed new hands-on approaches for teaching undergraduate courses but has also led the effort to develop an intensive training program for graduate students who plan careers in teaching. The "Activity Guide for University Physics" she prepared has been requested by numerous universities both in the United States and abroad.

As a result of her work, the University of Arkansas physics department has become part of a nationwide effort to improve the science background and teaching skills of secondary and elementary school teachers, which will lead to improved comprehension of science by the students they teach.

The University joins five other institutions, Ball Sate University, Oregon State University, the University of Arizona, Western Michigan University and Xavier University of Louisiana to serve as the primary program institutions for the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC). This coalition, an initiative created by the American Physical Society, the American Association of Physics Teachers and the American Institute of Physics, recently received a five-year $5.76 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create these six pilot programs for educating science educators.

"Science teachers work hard, but they are often not adequately prepared for the actual teaching of science," said Dr. Stewart, lead investigator for the University of Arkansas in the PhysTEC program. "The University of Arkansas should be doing an excellent job of preparing science teachers at all levels."

To achieve that goal, Stewart and curriculum and instruction professors Michael Wavering and Caroline Beller will work together to strengthen aspects of physics education in particular and science education in general. Prospective middle level and secondary school teachers will be required to take the course Physics and Human Affairs, a non-calculus based physics class with an accompanying laboratory. Several introductory physics courses will be modified so that students spend more time discovering things for themselves, instead of passively sitting and listening to lectures that seem unrelated to what they learn in the lab.

Stewart has already successfully revised the calculus-based University Physics II course, which has led to a dramatic increase in comprehension among the students who take it.

"Students get to observe things, explain them and try to understand them," Stewart said. "They’re playing more and answering their own questions."

In addition to course revisions, the PhysTEC program will focus on retaining physics teachers by giving them support through mentoring and induction programs. The University will host a Teacher-in-Residence (TIR) program, where high school physics teachers can spend a year on campus, acting as part faculty and part student, both taking and contributing to lab-based science and pedagogical courses. The teachers will teach an inquiry-based laboratory under the supervision of faculty members, attend colloquia and committee meetings and participate in science education courses. They also will spend the summer working on a research project with a faculty member of their choice.

These teachers will then be expected to act as mentors to other high school physics teachers in the state, supporting them in ways that the school districts themselves may be unable to do. The teacher-mentors, in-service and pre-service teachers will be connected through a statewide network of meetings and workshops, and an electronic server that will allow teachers and potential teachers to share information.

"Any new teacher needs all the help he or she can get," Stewart said. "But the new physics teacher may have even less support than the new English teacher."