Thorne Group Research and Education

Department of Physics

Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics

Cornell UniversityIthaca, NY • 14853 • (607)255-6487

Physics Teacher Recruiting and Training

The United States has a shortage of K-12 STEM teachers, and a critical shortage of high school physics teachers. Only one in three US high school students takes physics. Yet only one third of those who teach high school physics has a degree in physics or physics education. The situation is worst in urban and rural districts. 55% of NYC high schools do not even offer physics. High school physics is a prerequisite for many STEM careers that are critical to US economic competitiveness, and that have historically provided a path for upward socioeconomic mobility.

Research universities like Cornell are a major factor contributing to this teacher shortage. US colleges and universities that focus on teacher training tend to have relatively unselective admissions and attract relatively few students that are strong in physics, and so produce few highly qualified physics teachers. At research universities, such students are abundant, but the institutional ethos drives them toward careers at the frontiers of science and technology (even though most will not end up there) and provides little support for students with K-12 teaching interests. We can't hope to address national shortages of STEM professionals and the inadequate gender, racial and socioeconomic diversity among STEM faculty if we don't address the problems in our high schools.

In 2007 I obtained funding from the American Physical Society's Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) project and Cornell's Provost to establish a program to recruit and train more high school physics teachers. With major contributions from Physics Teachers in Residence Marty Alderman (2007-2009) and Jim Overhiser (2009-2011), we have put high school STEM teaching careers back in the sights of Cornell STEM majors, and have established a program to recruit, provide early field experience to and mentor Cornell undergraduates with teaching interests.

The centerpiece of our efforts is the Physics Undergraduate Teaching Assistant (UTA) Program. The program is open to all STEM majors who have taken an introductory physics course at Cornell and earned a grade of B or better. Students accepted into the program take a seminar course in teaching and learning physics, taught by a master high school physics teacher. At the same time, they work with a graduate TA in co-instructing problem-based learning sessions or labs in one of our introductory physics courses. UTAs attend weekly course staff meetings with physics faculty and graduate TAs, where they are expected to report on their classroom observations. Each UTA is assigned a regional high school physics teacher as a mentor, and meets with their teacher to discuss their experience and a video recording of their classroom performance. UTAs who continue in the program for more than one semester become Master UTAs, and have additional roles mentoring new UTAs. As a result of these experiences, UTAs develop teaching, learning and leadership skills and improve their core physics competence. UTAs with interests in high school teaching are encouraged to enroll in Cornell's Teacher Education Program and to earn a Minor in Education. We currently have 30 students per semester in the program.

Full details of our program are available at our comprehensive website.