Georgia College creates program to stem shortage of physics teachers

Georgia College creates program to stem shortage of physics teachers

C ompetence in physics is consistently ranked as the highest need in U.S. school districts, according to the American Association for Employment in Education. Only 35 percent of new physics teachers in middle or high school, however, hold a degree in physics or physics education.

More alarming: Nearly one-third of secondary physics teachers take fewer than three college courses in physics. As result, most middle and high school students are taught physics and physical science by teachers who lack certification in the subject.

Georgia College is the first university in Central Georgia to tackle this problem.

Physics students working on a solar panel.
Physics students working on a solar panel.
Beginning this fall, a new concentration in physics is being offered for students who want to teach in that field. Students following this track for a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree are expected to complete a Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) after graduation.  

“Physics is the gateway to many STEM disciplines, and students who take high school physics are better prepared for college,” said Dr. Chavonda Mills, chair of chemistry, physics and astronomy.

Addressing the critical shortage of qualified high school physics teachers should not only lead to an increased number of college physics majors, but also to improved success and degree completion in all STEM majors. It’s a win-win situation.
– Dr. Mills

Physics is one of the oldest academic disciplines. Its exploration of matter and motion through space and time, along with force and energy, is critical for advancements in technology. Physics students learn important quantitative, analytical and reasoning skills. The subject is often a prerequisite for anyone looking for careers in engineering, chemistry, biology, environmental science and medical/veterinary fields.

Dr. Hauke Busch, right, in the optical physics lab with students.
Dr. Hauke Busch, right, in the optical physics lab with students.

Without qualified physics teachers in middle and high school, however, few students emerge with the confidence and skill to pursue that science in college, according to Cornell University’s Physics Teacher Education Coalition. To make the U.S. economically competitive with other countries, it reported, the number of qualified physics teachers needs to increase fivefold.

... there are just not enough graduates to go around.
– Dr. Laura Whitlock
Georgia College Physics Lecturer Dr. Laura Whitlock raised the idea for a physics education pathway in 2019. She previously taught high school physics and knows firsthand the “obvious need” for well-trained teachers in the field. When researching the problem, she noted a high number of jobs going unfilled because of a lack of qualified candidates.

“The standards just about everywhere these days require you to have a bachelor’s degree or higher in physics to teach at the high school level. But there are just not enough graduates to go around,” Whitlock said. “Our department felt like the need is so big that we needed to give it a try. Even if we graduate only one or two per year, that’s a significant increase for our state.”

Dr. Hasitha Mahabaduge works with physics students.
Dr. Hasitha Mahabaduge works with physics students.
A few years ago, Georgia College’s Department of Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy added a number of upper-level physics courses to the curriculum, designed to prepare students for graduate school. But these courses weren’t geared towards the needs of students heading into secondary teaching and even prevented such students from succeeding or considering a degree in physics, said Dr. Ralph France, professor of physics.

The new program allows incoming students to choose a physics education pathway. They’ll take more courses in the College of Education designed for the preparation of teaching. These include secondary teaching and math education, along with a broader set of introductory science classes outside of physics and fewer graduate school prep courses.

A physics teacher needs to understand physics and mathematics at a level significantly higher than that which they are teaching.
– Dr. Ralph France
“It’s important to note that this is still a rigorous B.S. degree in physics,” France said. “A physics teacher needs to understand physics and mathematics at a level significantly higher than that which they are teaching.”

A new internship course for the concentration was also added to give students experience in Whitlock’s astronomy lab or Dr. Sharon Careccia’s physics lab. This provides teaching experience early on, while giving students valuable moments with mentors.

Groundwork for the program is being laid through recruitment. The department’s working closely with Admissions to connect with school districts that require all high school students to complete physics. Students in these districts are often inspired by their high school physics teacher and more likely to consider a career in physics education, Mills said.

The university’s looking for students with this kind of passion. Along with a good dose of practice, these students can become great educators. Whitlock hopes to instill in in them “a sense of curiosity and wonder,” creating teachers who can turn failed experiments or demonstrations into teaching moments.

She’s certain Georgia College will soon develop a reputation for producing enthusiastic, qualified physics teachers and become a vital source for secondary school districts.

The future of our country could be at stake. Not having a good physics course in high school puts our citizens at a deficit in the global community. Physics is a love it or not field. Few who love it consider high school education as their goal. We need to change that.
– Dr. Whitlock