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Department of Physics awarded grant to establish unique physics program


BLACKSBURG, Va., Aug. 23, 2011 – Virginia Tech's Department of Physics in the College of Science and the School of Education in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences have received a grant to establish a program of study that is designed to attract students to high school physics teaching as a career. 

The program, called PhysTEC, is offered at 23 schools nationwide. With this award, Virginia Tech will have the only such program in the state.

Starting this fall, students will be offered a seamless Physics BA/MAED program with learner-centered introductory physics courses, early field experiences, and courses in science methods and physics teaching pedagogy. PhysTEC students will also take a leadership role in the activities of the Physics Outreach Team, a service learning experience that takes hands-on physics activities into the schools and the community.

“Our vision is to establish a vibrant hub for physics teacher education in Virginia and neighboring regions,” said Beate Schmittmann, physics department chair and principal investigator of the grant. “This hub will integrate an intense educational experience for prospective physics teachers and produce highly qualified physics educators.”

The American Association of Employment in Education identified mathematics, physics, and chemistry as some of the fields with a considerable shortage of high school teachers nationwide. Many southeastern states are below the national average in availability of physics programs in high schools.

“Of course, PhysTEC goes hand-in-hand with the need for having better educated high school students in STEM fields,” Schmittmann said. “It addresses a critical national need as well as a major focus of this university.”

Goals of the program are to increase the number of MAED graduates with undergraduate physics degrees, build a model program in learner-centered introductory physics and astronomy education, develop early teaching experiences, and create a solid professional development network of program graduates.

“We are confident we can graduate six to eight highly-qualified physics teachers per year by the end of the program cycle and sustain or even increase that number in future years,” Schmittmann said.

One important component will be the use of the university’s SCALE-UP classroom, launched by the College of Science last year. Results of the SCALE-UP teaching method have been highly favorable.

Another important component of the PhysTEC program is the teacher-in-residence, a successful high school physics teacher who will work full-time on campus and serve as a resource to students, helping them understand and prepare for public school teaching. The first teacher-in-residence will be Hokie Alma Robinson who holds bachelor's degrees in physics and philosophy and a master's in education.

The program received funding of $300,000 for three years. The Department of Physics, the School of Education, the College of Science, and the vice presidents for undergraduate education and outreach and international affairs have committed to help sustain the program.

In addition to Schmittmann and Robinson, the project team includes: George Glasson, program leader in science education in the School of Education; Leo Piilonen and John Simonetti, faculty members in the physics department; Brenda Brand, faculty member in science education in the School of Education; Catherine Amelink, assessment coordinator in the College of Engineering; and Mary Kasarda, faculty member in mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering. Many high school teachers in the area have expressed their enthusiastic support and will partner with the program.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 225 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $496 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.