Helping engineers become good physics teachers from the Netherlands

Not all high school teachers enter university sure of their future career path. In the case of physics teachers, some get their start in physics-heavy fields such as engineering before switching to education.

Yet in the Netherlands, where we live, and in many other countries, even those with a significant background in physics have to do more than just participate in classroom training to become qualified high school physics teachers. University Physics Teacher Education (UPTE) programs in our country require aspiring physics teachers to prove their proficiency in a full range of physics subjects, including areas of modern physics such as quantum mechanics and special relativity.

Electrical engineers fluent in electricity and magnetism may have completely missed special relativity or quantum mechanics during their education. Chemical engineers probably never took courses in classical mechanics or particle physics. So when engineers and other physics-educated applicants have inquired about a UPTE program, we have had to tell them to enroll in an undergraduate physics program, take the necessary courses, pass the exams, and report back to us with the subject deficiencies covered. Only then could they start the yearlong classroom teacher training.

That obstacle is especially burdensome in light of the pressing shortage of physics teachers in the Netherlands, where “the number of graduating academic teachers per year is far below the required replacement level,” according to a recent paper. Many other countries, including the US, are experiencing a similar shortfall (see the article by Valerie Otero and David Meltzer, Physics Today, May 2017, page 50). The reasons for the shortages can be manifold: more attractive job prospects, a relatively low number of physics graduates, the working conditions in schools, and the low social status of teachers in some countries. Whatever the causes, the hurdle of undergraduate courses to cover subject deficiencies has been a major thorn in the side of programs designed to train new physics teachers.

That’s why we’ve helped to create a program dedicated to helping engineers and other scientists cover subject deficiencies effectively and efficiently. It consists of a set of expert-taught courses that are tailored to the secondary education curriculum, focused on conceptual understanding, and designed with flexibility in scheduling. Given the success of the program so far, we hope that other countries will adopt our model for smoothing the transition into physics teaching.

At first it may seem that taking a handful of undergraduate physics courses would not be a big deal for those looking to switch careers. But many applicants have jobs already, often as an unqualified physics teacher, which prevents them from taking undergraduate courses tailored to full-time students. Further, the benefits of the courses are questionable. The content tends to be aimed at training mathematically proficient physicists for careers in academia and industry. Courses are typically lecture based, mathematically advanced, and deductive. Yet physics teachers require a greater priority placed on conceptual understanding than on mathematical knowledge.

Since we are involved in UPTE programs in the Netherlands, we’ve seen aspiring physics teachers give up on their ambition after hearing about the arduous task of taking undergraduate courses. So, after consulting with fellow teacher trainers at other universities, we approached the Netherlands Ministry of Education to discuss the issue and propose a solution. The initial meeting revealed that the ministry recognized the need for more qualified physics teachers and was willing to support a new program, which was dubbed NATK4ALL (natuurkunde is Dutch for “physics”).

Our first step was a round of talks with all nine Dutch UPTE programs and university physics departments that could supply the experts to deliver the NATK4ALL courses. Following those talks, we compiled a list of necessities for the program, including instruction by eminent physics experts; course subjects dictated by the actual physics curriculum in secondary education; conceptual rather than mathematical curricula; the use of online instruction to accommodate participants’ jobs and other obligations; and independent quality control, evaluation, and improvement cycles.

With help from our UPTE colleagues, we compiled a list of NATK4ALL courses and made a table determining which type of engineer would have to take which classes. We ended up with courses in classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, electricity and magnetism, thermodynamics, astrophysics and astronomy, high-energy and particle physics, special relativity, experimental physics, and history and philosophy of physics, along with electives in biophysics and geophysics.

We then constructed a profile for each NATK4ALL course based on actual high school physics curricula. We targeted high-profile physicists from Dutch universities with a proven dedication to education as lecturers. They were given considerable freedom in interpreting the course profiles, provided they cover the basic curriculum, maintain an undergraduate difficulty level, and adopt a conceptual approach.

As an illustration of the conceptual approach, here are some examples of actual exam questions:

We organized the courses at convenient times on a single day of the week (Friday) for the target audience, with as much flexibility as possible. We chose a location close to a major railway station in Utrecht, which is in the center of the country. We limited the number of in-person meetings and set up an extensive virtual learning environment to maximize the effectiveness of off-site learning. Despite the desire for flexibility, we rejected a fully online approach because of the importance of group work and face-to-face interactions with lecturers.

To gauge the program’s success, a steering committee of UPTE and university physics department representatives meets twice a year to discuss major changes, finances, and general policy issues such as the allotment of courses to the different universities. The committee also appoints an independent evaluation panel to check the quality of the exams.

The program has been up and running for three years, with an annual enrollment of 50–70 students, most of them engineers. We’ve confirmed that most engineers indeed lack expertise in modern physics—courses on quantum physics, particle physics, and special relativity theory turn out to be necessary. The course on the history and philosophy of physics has been found to be helpful for any aspiring physics teacher.

On average, students enroll in four courses, with some finishing in one academic year and others taking two years. They pass 82% of the courses’ final exams on their first attempt. We’re quite proud to report average student satisfaction levels of 7.9 on a scale of 1–10. Lecturers also report high levels of motivation.

Over the past three years, the NATK4ALL program has developed into a well-appreciated and effective set of physics courses for engineers preparing for physics teaching. The blended learning format suits students who are combining a teaching job and a teacher-training program. The success of the program has already prompted the advent of comparable programs for chemistry and information science.

Based on NATK4ALL enrollment and the 40–50 regular UPTE graduates per year, it’s possible that the number of new physics teachers will double in the Netherlands. However, the shortage of physics teachers cannot be solved by our program only. For that, we need an integral approach, of which the NATK4ALL program is just one aspect. Universities are now looking into ways to allow students to embed teacher-training components into their undergraduate and graduate programs as an alternative to the capstone trajectory that most have to follow now.

We believe that the general necessities of the program, as outlined above, can be readily used to set up comparable initiatives in other countries. Organizing in-person meetings may need to be done on a regional rather than national level in big countries like the US. But physics teachers everywhere need subject knowledge that greatly exceeds the level of secondary education—and that subject knowledge needs to be primarily conceptual rather than mathematical.

With a commitment to one approach to cover subject deficiencies, a number of experts willing to play a role in educating future physics teachers, blended learning, and some government support, we believe these programs could flower anywhere. We hope they will. As one NATK4ALL graduate put it: “Without NATK4ALL, it would have been impossible for me to obtain a teacher degree.”

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