Federal Grant Helps Georgia State Address Severe Shortage of Physics Teachers

Then-Governor Sonny Perdue pointed out in a speech in 2009 that Georgia’s universities had produced only one certified high school physics teacher in the previous year. Georgia State University now has a three-year, $300,000 federal grant to improve that number.

Photo of Brian Thoms in his lab, surrounded by equipment.

Brian Thoms

“We will graduate four physics majors with teacher certifications this year,” said Brian Thoms, assistant chair of Physics and Astronomy and primary investigator on the grant. He expects a similar number next year, and hopes to graduate more in the future.

Those graduating physics teachers are the product of the new PhysTEC Comprehensive Site at Georgia State, funded by the National Science Foundation via the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers.

Many teachers are “broad-field-certified” to teach more than one science to kids in grades six through 12. But these teachers typically don’t have physics degrees, and may not be the ideal educators for such a technical subject.

The program recruits and supports would-be physics teachers in a variety of ways. New physics majors are encouraged to take a course called “Gateway to Physics.” Thoms and other professors go into the class and give presentations about teaching opportunities.

Headshot of Mary Ariail

Mary Ariail

Once a student declares an intention to enter the concentration in education in the Physics major, he or she has access to a broad range of support. These students have advisers in Physics and are advised by Associate Professor Mary Ariail, Associate Chair of the Department of Middle and Secondary Education in the College of Education.

“Because the program is small, we can offer very personalized attention and advisement for each student,” Ariail said.

Students can also ask questions and talk about teaching methods with Elizabeth Walker, the program’s teacher-in-residence, who has spent 20 years teaching physics at the high school level. When their student teaching begins, Walker observes and evaluates their work.

The PhysTEC students also have the opportunity to work as paid “learning assistants.” They teach assigned tutorials in the department’s introductory calculus-based physics course and take a course in physics instruction at the same time.

The colleges of Education and Arts and Sciences have committed funds to keep the program going for three years after the grant funds run out. The long-term goal, Thoms said, is to create a sustainable program other universities can use as a model.

“Less than half of physics teachers across the nation have a degree in physics,” Thoms said. “There’s a serious shortage of well-qualified teachers in the subject.”