Grad School, Special Projects

PhysTEC program encourages students to pursue a career in education

On an early Thursday evening on Zoom, a battle about physics began.

It started innocently enough when a teacher at the meeting showcased a pre-filmed physics experiment on momentum.

But after one professor expressed confusion over the results of the experiment, it soon became a back-and-forth test of knowledge, with Long Beach State professors and teachers from Southern California high schools chiming in to explain how the rules of physics caused a paper cup to move backward when a marble was rolled down a textbook and into it.

At one point, a professor quickly scribbled a mathematical equation. Meanwhile, a CSULB student in attendance mimicked a fistfight between the speakers.

It’s Demo Day, a previously in-person monthly event, now virtual, where Long Beach State students, professors and high school teachers come together to demonstrate physics experiments and walk away knowing more about the field and their colleagues.

It’s just one program in PhysTEC, the nationwide Physics Teacher Education Coalition that started in 2001 with a goal to instate teachers with physics degrees at U.S. high schools.

This comes in response to the growing number of students enrolling in physics courses. According to the Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics, high schools have trouble filling physics teacher positions, let alone hiring qualified teachers.

PhysTEC at CSULB began in 2007.

The program has thrived in the Department of Physics and Astronomy under the care of advisers and professors Laura Henriques, Galen Pickett and Chuhee Kwon, as well as the investment of CSULB’s physics faculty.

Henriques explained that the program is so ingrained in the department that the faculty will tell students that being a high school physics teacher is not only a career option; it’s a good one.

“We don’t recognize how unusual that is at universities,” Henriques said. “Physics faculty traditionally want their students to go on to PhDs or go work in industry and to really say to somebody, you’re a strong physics student you would be an awesome physics teacher, that’s a big deal.”

Beyond Demo Days, PhysTEC at CSULB has developed two classes in the undergraduate physics program for students interested in pursuing teaching. After taking these classes, students are then qualified to be learning assistants for the department.

Henriques explained that the learning assistant positions, which include tutoring, are “low-stakes” opportunities for students to try their hand at teaching.

This helps learning assistants like Tiberius Rheaume, a fifth-year double major in physics and Japanese, recognize how much they understand and areas they can improve on. The learning assistant program, he said, is designed around helping the “tutors learn to be tutors.”

Teaching physics can be difficult even for those well-versed in the subject.

Rheaume said professors studying this subject often explain concepts at a level that they assume their students are at. As tutors, Rheaume and his peers need to determine what students do understand and build upon concepts from there.

“I’ve learned a lot from the program,” Rheaume said. “Not just about physics, but also about education, about teaching strategies, about mental models, about even different kinds of questions that you should be asking your students and the people that you’re helping so that you can help them help themselves.”

When Rheaume was in high school, he took a university level physics course. There, the professor explained a problem that could be solved differently and yield the same answer.

It captured Rheaume’s attention, who saw these measurable concepts as interconnected rules for the universe. Rheaume, who already enjoyed games with clearly defined rules, suddenly saw the world as something with predictability.

“For me, studying physics is like looking at the universe as a giant board game,” Rheaume said. “I just haven’t figured out all the rules yet, but I want to figure out how to play it.”

Emmanuel Guardado, a third-year physics major, always knew that he wanted to major in the sciences, but it wasn’t until he took Advanced Placement Physics in high school when he realized that physics was the subject for him.

His teacher engaged with the class, making the subject fun. When Guardado began to understand the material, it only made his experience better.

Guardado has been part of PhysTEC for about a year. He first learned about the program after enrolling in one of the two teaching-based classes called Exploring Physics Teaching.

While Guardado’s goal is to do research and teach at a university level, he said that the program has helped physics majors look into teaching at the high school or community college levels.

“I’ve always wondered, ‘Oh, maybe I could do a better job at teaching and maybe make more students realize how good physics is’…Aside from doing research, like, ‘Oh, maybe I could go through [the teaching] route and maybe change some students’ perspectives,’” Guardado said.

CSULB’s PhysTEC is a member of The 5+ Club, which recognizes institutions that have graduated five or more physics teachers in an academic year.

Some alumni from the department include Justin Fournier, who teaches at Cypress High School and Shawn Kirby, who teaches physics at Palm Springs High School and participates in the Demo Days.

But for the many students part of PhysTEC that are not actively pursuing a career in teaching, they still walk away with something important.

“In any job you do, you’re going to have to communicate with people, you’re going to have to work and mentor and teach people, and having a sense of how to do that clearly is a wonderful skill,” Henriques said.

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