Nathan Magee, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Physics Department, The College of New Jersey
Lauren Madden, Ph.D., Professor, Elementary Science Education, The College of New Jersey
AJ Richards, Ph.D., Associate Professor, The College of New Jersey
Marissa Bellino, Ph.D., Associate Professor, The College of New Jersey
Melissa Chessler, Ph.D., Assistant Director, TCNJ Noyce Project, The College of New Jersey
Although it is perhaps a bit peculiar to apply Shakespeare to physics teaching career contemplations, the notoriously misinterpreted question of “Wherefore art thou?” begs us to look for answers in our students. We believe it is vital to scrutinize the “wherefores” of successful physics teachers, in both the classic meaning (why teach physics?) and the inapposite sense of the word (where to find physics teachers?). Foremost, why do students and practicing teachers decide to pursue a career teaching physics? What is unique about the personal reasoning for these decisions, and how do they differ from the much larger pool of prospective teachers and prospective STEM professionals? Furthermore, we also need to think hard about where prospective physics teachers can be found, and how, when, and by whom should they best be identified and encouraged. We think that our team and physics teacher education colleagues around the nation have some partial answers to these questions, but much more work remains to leverage new insights about physics teachers for the advancement of national physics education.
A Deep and Persistent National Shortage of Physics Teachers
Over the past six years, we’ve found ourselves thinking and working intensively with prospective and practicing physics teachers, with a specific aim in mind – we need many more of them! Our current Noyce Track 1 project (Award # 1557357) at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) is motivated by a dire shortage of highly qualified physics teachers in our state and throughout the country. This national shortage of well-qualified secondary physics teachers has been a persistent concern for decades, and remains widely recognized as an urgent challenge to STEM education in the United States (e.g., Feder, 2022; Meltzer et al. 2012; Meltzer, 2021; Otero et al. 2006). The scarcity of highly qualified physics teachers is even more pressing in high-need schools and further challenged by a lack of diversity among new and existing teachers (Ferrini-Mundy 2013; Goings et al. 2021; Shah-Amoah 2020).
Statistics on physics teacher supply and demand and average physics teacher preparation are worrying: physics teacher preparation program completion was already estimated at less than 50% of needed supply in 2012 and has since declined an additional 25% (U.S. Dept. of Ed. Title II statistics, 2022). Though this decline in physics teacher completion is similar to that seen in other content areas (Partelow 2019), it is more stark when compared with data that shows populations of high school physics students are growing nationally (+13% from 2013-2019, Chu and White 2021). As a consequence of these combined factors, only about 40% of current high school physics classroom teachers have a physics minor or major, the lowest of any secondary subject (Shah et al. 2019). In Figure 1, the decline in physics teacher preparation program completers is shown from 2013-2019. Of the ~600 completers in each of the last several years, approximately 65% have a physics-related major, nearly all of whom have graduated from traditional college-based teacher prep programs (blue in Figure 1). The high fraction of practicing physics teachers without a physics major or minor predominantly arise from out-of-field staffing (often due to inability to hire a highly qualified physics teacher, Sheppard et al. 2020), with a smaller contribution from completers of non-traditional certification routes (grey and orange in Figure 1).
Figure 1. Physics teacher Preparation Program Completers. The ~25% decline in physics teacher completers over the period is very similar to the national trend across all teacher content fields.
For Love of Subject and an Impactful Career
With such a pressing shortage in mind, we aimed to grow the size of the physics teacher education program at TCNJ, and our Noyce project team worked intensively on recruiting potential physics teachers. In developing an array of recruiting strategies (described below), we realized that a deeper understanding of the motivations and decisions made by new physics teachers would be critical to successfully identifying and encouraging a larger pool of physics teacher candidates.
To this end, our research team surveyed all of TCNJ’s physics majors in 2019 (n=92). Survey responses included both non-teaching physics majors (n=27) and prospective teachers enrolled in the physics teaching certification pathway (n=22) (Madden et al. 2021). Physics faculty and prospective physics teachers were also interviewed to elucidate attitudes and motivations regarding advising (faculty) and pursuing (students’) career choices. This study provided several important lessons for our recruiting efforts:
- Nearly all students majoring in physics expressed a love and passion for the subject, but those planning to teach physics scored the highest on this metric.
- The students pursuing physics teaching careers were highly motivated to pursue a career that made a significant positive impact to society.
- Teachers, faculty, and peers who validate and nurture interest in physics teaching are highly influential in career choices.
The title of our resulting paper reflects a concise synopsis of these findings: “I Fell in Love with Physics and Wanted to Share that Love with Others” (Madden et al., 2021). Students pursuing this path often see the career aspiration as a calling – they sincerely want to provide an inspiring pathway into science for students who otherwise might not have a positive experience with physics. A little bit of well-timed validation and support by a respected mentor can make all the difference, propelling a nascent disposition into a rewarding career.
Other research is consistent with these findings, and student interest in promoting social good through STEM teaching is not so rare as many would assume. Several studies report that nearly 50% of STEM majors express some interest in teaching as a career, with approximately 20% of physics majors reporting moderate to very high interest (Marder et al. 2017; Plecki et al. 2013). Physics bachelor’s degrees have been steadily increasing in the US (Figure 2), but over the same time period, physics teacher program completers have declined (Figure 1). With student interest close to 50%, why have only ~4% of physics graduates actually completed a program toward a teaching career in recent years? Where are all the desperately needed physics teachers?
Figure 2. Physics Bachelor’s degrees earned from 1985-2020. Over the 2013-2019 period shown in Figure 1, total US physics graduates have increased by 30% (Nicholson and Mulvey 2021).
Recruitment and Teaching Career Validation vs. Synoptic Headwinds
Unfortunately, a unitary solution to the shortage of physics teachers has continued to evade the scientific and education community. In 2001, at about the same time the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program was launched by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the American Physical Society and American Association of Physics teachers joined with NSF to sponsor the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC). Over the past two decades, PhysTEC has grown steadily, and now has more than 300 institutional members. The coalition sponsors an annual conference, provides grant support to members, publicly recognizes productive programs, and regularly publishes excellent reports that recommend effective practices to achieve productive physics teacher education programs. These strategies include: garnering institutional support; identifying faculty champions; nurturing collaboration between physics departments and schools of education; recruiting intentionally; streamlining certification pathways; offering deep physics content, pedagogy, and multiple field experiences; engaging in active cohort-building and programmatic self-assessment (Sandifer & Brewe 2015; Plisch 2010; Meltzer et al. 2012, Meltzer 2021; Scherr & Chasteen, 2021).
Through these efforts, dozens of physics teacher preparation programs have garnered support, and recent growth has been established in the production of highly qualified physics teacher candidates (PhysTEC, 2022). Unfortunately, this important progress continues to be swamped by the two-thirds of US physics programs without active teacher training pathways remaining on the sidelines, combined with multifarious structural impediments to broad growth of the teacher workforce. Examples of the challenging synoptic environment include strained school district and state college funding, non-competitive teacher salaries in some regions, polarized public perceptions of K-12 education, and the COVID-19 pandemic (Partlow 2019, Carver-Thomas et al. 2022).
Table 1. Barriers to program productivity with mitigation and sustainability strategy examples. Green highlights emphasize the efforts judged most effective and feasible to adapt at a wide array of institutions, even without major funding sources.
In an effort to push back against these headwinds, and informed by PhysTEC effective practices and by our study of physics teachers career motivations, we have identified three key adaptable practices (highlighted in green in Table 1 above) that we will continue to sustain and deploy energetically beyond the end of the Noyce scholarship funding. These practices address both central questions: “Where are potential physics teachers?”, and “Why do they decide to pursue a physics teaching career?” Across all three of these key practices, we are also using the following strategies to broaden student diversity in our program (sub-strategies in italics).
In the TCNJ Physics Department, our Noyce project has invigorated effort and boosted capacity to implement nearly all of the PhysTEC recommendations for thriving programs (Scherr & Chasteen 2020). We’ve succeeded in adapting most of these features to our local context, and seen excellent results. During the Noyce grant period, we’ve increased physics teacher education program applications by approximately 3x (from 5 to 15/year), increased diversity of students in the program, and doubled the number of annual program graduates (from approximately 3 to 6 per year). These successes have been achieved despite declining applications to the college, new state-level barriers to certification, the institutional closure of a long-standing MAT certification pathway, and COVID-19 disruptions.
Through the successes of the Noyce Physics program at TCNJ, we have found that the growth of physics teacher education in our department has been a true source of strength for the entire department, redounding to benefit the stability, diversity, and culture of physics at TCNJ. Tangible benefits to physics departments from an active physics teacher education program include:
- Students completing a physics teacher education program are nearly guaranteed multiple excellent job offers.
- Strategic recruitment for science teacher education students often spills over to drive broader increases in applications from strong students.
- Efforts to improve access and equity in teacher education programs also frequently drives broadening diversity in STEM majors.
- The teacher job market is often very local. Outstanding alumni science teachers are among the best sources of potential new STEM majors.
- With just a few graduates per year, departments can make a meaningful difference to regional STEM education and quickly gain internal and national recognition.
We strongly believe that efforts to grow physics teacher education can be feasible undertakings for many physics departments without active physics teacher education programs (⅔ of all US physics departments), as well as other science departments in high-need STEM fields. Although all of the PhysTEC strategies have proven track records of success, we enthusiastically endorse starting with the three key strategies (network-driven recruitment, support and validation for majors’ interest in teaching, lowering program barriers; details in Table 1.) that were most critical to energizing TCNJ’s program. Critically, these three steps can be deployed with minimal financial investment, and yield results within a time frame of 1-2 years.
Thanks to ARISE Blog Editor, Dr. Doug Larkin for inviting the Noyce project team from TCNJ to share their research. Please read the ARISE blog by Doug and his colleague, Dr. Sandra Adams, on Lessons Learned from Running a Scholarship Program for Undergraduate Pre-Service STEM Teachers.