UA Recieves National Science Foundation Grant

The National Science Foundation and The University of Alabama are partnering in an $8 million grant for the Alliance for Physics Excellence Program to help better train high school physics teachers in the state of Alabama.

Physics education in the state of Alabama has been on a steady decline in recent years. J.W. Harrell, associate professor of physics at the University, said only 75 percent of state high schools offer even one physics class for their students, and only 10 percent of physics teachers teaching these classes graduated from college with a major or minor in physics.

“Nationwide, the need for high school physics teachers exceeds all other disciplines,” Harrell said. “Addressing this need is critically important because physics is fundamental to all science and engineering disciplines.”

This grant with allow APEX to better train 88 Alabama high school physics teachers over the next five years. This would account for almost one quarter of all Alabama high school physics teachers. The program will also provide 10 two-year scholarships valued at $16,000 a year to college students currently majoring in physics and interested in teaching high school physics upon graduation.

The University’s role in this program will be to evaluate the it’s effectiveness. Dennis Sunal, a science education professor at the University, will serve as the program’s primary investigator.

“Unlike most programs, APEX looks not only at student knowledge but also the knowledge of the teacher,” Sunal said. “Teachers will be equipped with multiple ways to present physics to their students, and we’ll evaluate if the program worked with standardized tests, observations, and interviews of both students and instructors.”

Another grant was recently awarded to the University that will also help to remedy the physics education situation in the state.

The University was one of four institutions from across the nation to be awarded a $300,000 grant from PhysTEC to recruit more people to teach physics at high schools across the state.

“For the past few decades, fewer and fewer college graduates from across the state have been going into physics education upon graduation,” Sunal said.

PhysTEC is a coalition of more than 250 colleges and universities in the U.S. who support the goal of improving high school physics teaching. The grant will be used to allow a high school teacher to work in the University’s physics department for a year, serving as a mentor for undergraduates interested in becoming physics teachers after graduating.

Also, the PhysTEC grant will provide interested UA undergraduate students the opportunity to serve as “Learning Assistants.” These students will take a one-credit course to introduce them to the principles of teaching high school physics. They will then have the opportunity to apply their teaching by going to area high schools and assisting teachers with classroom activities. There are currently 12 learning assistants participating in the program, though more students are invited to apply and join this paid experience.

The possibilities these grants offer have caused lots of excitement amongst the leaders of the program.

“There has been a significant increase in the number and quality of undergraduate physics majors in the past few years,” Harrell said. “With the APEX and PhysTEC grants, the department now has the opportunity to significantly impact the quality of HS physics teaching in Alabama.”

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