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Excerpted from APS News, January 8, 2016

Recruiting High School Physics Teachers

By John Stewart, Gay Stewart, and Alma Robinson

Of the 1400 new physics teachers hired each year in the United States, only 600 are highly qualified — i.e., they have a major or minor in either physics or physics education [ 1, 2] . Physics departments are uniquely responsible for this shortfall in that they are the only academic units that can produce highly qualified physics teachers. Also, physics departments disproportionally benefit from improved high school (HS) physics instruction through an increase in the number of majors and a general increase in the preparedness of the students in physics classes. Unfortunately, casting physics teacher preparation in the light of a public service responsibility places it amongst many other public service demands on departments, such as outreach and science advocacy, for which they receive little support and the immediate tangible benefits are small.

Yet for the last 15 years, the University of Arkansas (UA) physics department found that featuring HS teaching as one possible career path for its graduates produced dramatic, immediate benefits for relatively minor investments [ 3]. Sixteen percent of UA physics graduates chose to enter HS teaching, providing excellent outcomes for these students and significantly increasing the overall number of physics graduates. Discussions with these graduates find them nearly universally satisfied with their career choice.

A physics major’s progression is a complicated personal journey where sometimes-naïve beliefs about the physics profession are replaced with tangible experience. At many institutions, professional internships in the form of mentored research experiences are available only to more senior students because of the prerequisite knowledge. After the experience, some students decide academic research and graduate school do not fit their personal goals. During this process a student is also maturing from an 18-year-old HS student to a more mature 22-year-old adult and has time to seriously consider both professional and personal goals such as quality of life, geographic flexibility to be near family and long-time friends, working environment, and the opportunity to directly impact people’s lives.

HS physics teaching is a career path that has many attractive features for students who find their personal goals will not be well served by the 10 years of additional preparation (Ph.D. and postdocs) required to secure an academic position, and the dramatic personal pressures placed on individuals who pursue this path. HS teaching allows a student to directly apply skills learned in physics in a dynamic environment with rewarding personal interactions. With technology like robotics, cheap microcontrollers, and 3D printing, and pedagogical innovations, HS physics classrooms are exciting and creative work spaces for physics graduates. HS teachers are often more connected to physics than graduates pursuing industrial careers which use reasoning and lab skills but not necessarily physics content knowledge.

HS physics teachers can become central figures in many communities and impact a generation of students from their hometowns. HS teachers work hard, but enter their careers years earlier than students who pursue graduate training in physics, have significant flexibility in terms of where they work, the ability to leave and re-enter the workforce, and the possibility of sometimes leaving work at work.

Link to this story on the APS website

John Stewart and Gay Stewart are at West Virginia University, and Alma Robinson is at Virginia Tech.

[1] S. White and C. L. Tesfaye,  Focus on Turnover among High School Physics Teachers  (AIP Statistical Research Center, College Park, MD, 2011).

[2]  S. White and C. L. Tesfaye,  Focus on Who Teaches High School Physics  (AIP Statistical Research Center, College Park, MD, 2010).

[3]  J. Stewart, W. Oliver III, & G. Stewart, Revitalizing an undergraduate physics program: A case study of the University of Arkansas. American Journal of Physics, 81(12), 943-950 (2013).


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