BYU Physics Student Highlighted by APS

Mentoring Brigham Young University’s Pre-Service Physics Teachers, by Duane Merrell

Liz Finlayson

It was in Ms. Heather Riet’s physics class at Lone Peak High School in Utah that Elizabeth “Liz” Finlayson decided to become a physics teacher. In the following year, Liz solidified her passion for teaching when she served as a teaching assistant in Ms. Riet’s physics class. When Liz applied for colleges, she actively sought out physics teaching programs and soon followed in her teacher’s footsteps – like Ms. Riet, she will be graduating from Brigham Young University’s (BYU) physics teaching program, and she will start her student teaching during the 2020 Winter Semester. In this article, I will highlight the mentoring and support available to Liz as part of our physics teaching program.

Liz entered BYU with ideas of how she wanted to teach physics, and as she’s gone through her own courses, she has actively reflected on the teaching methods that she’s experienced. To help her turn her desire to teach into a reality, our program has given her consistent mentoring and support, including the use of the physical science teaching labs. Whether she needed a lab for studying, equipment use, peer support, course work, or just to receive guidance from a physics professor, Liz has always known that she could find support in the lab space that was created for physics teaching students. Now, as senior, she has been able to use this space to also support others. Lauren, a nervous young freshman student who fell in love with physics in high school and wanted to become a physics teacher, was having some concerns about pursuing the physics teaching degree. She found Liz in the lab, and with Liz’s help, Lauren was able to regain her footing and love of teaching physics.

The big question and challenge that we give all of our preservice teachers is: When you teach physics, will your students want to take more physics? The mentoring that Liz receives is geared toward this question. When she teaches physics, will the efforts she makes excite students to want to learn more physics, or will they swear to never take another physics class? Is there a method of teaching a high school physics class that will encourage the students to pursue more physics?

We think the key to this is to prepare our preservice teachers with labs and activities that will engage students in physics at a level that is not just computational, but also conceptual. In order to do this, our undergraduate courses for our physics teaching students include Introduction to teaching physical science, Methods of teaching physical science, Physics by Inquiry—Motion through Energy, and Physics by Inquiry—Electricity. In all, the students take 14 semester hours that specifically focus on methods for teaching physics concepts in a way that helps students develop a conceptual understanding of physics alongside their computational problem solving skills. In addition, we prepare boxes of labs and activities that align with these curricula so that when our preservice teachers begin their student teaching, they have access to classroom sets of materials and the ability to use them. You can see the list of activities that are available to the students using this link:

During Liz’s upcoming student teaching, she will be supported with weekly mentoring from two university mentors, adding up to over 20 visits during the semester. We also use these visits to deliver and pick up the aforementioned lab and activity materials. When Liz leaves BYU, we hope that she feels welcome to contact us for support at any time. We try to keep track of all of our graduates and support them when needed, but our real goal is to prepare them with a fully stocked quiver of knowledge about physics teaching. Often times, it seems that teacher preparation only provides a teacher with the quiver, the philosophy of teaching, and while we hope to do that well, we also want our young teachers to be able to reach back into their quiver and find an arrow – a lab, an activity, or a lesson – that will keep the students immersed in learning physics in an engaging and exciting environment of conceptual understanding and problem solving.

Come April 2020, Liz will be looking for her first classroom of physics students. We don’t know where that will be, but we are hopeful that she will find a district that values physics teaching and has a vibrant physics teaching community. If she stays in the Provo, Utah area, we will continue to support her, not because we are tasked with the induction of new teachers, but because we believe in these students and want them to succeed. In fact, Liz will still have access to the lab kits and equipment when our current students don’t need them. Our local alumni can also become members of a professional learning community supported by the Center for the Improvement of Teacher Education & Schooling (CITIES), a BYU-public school partnership. Of course, there are also other local and national organizations that can support new teachers. Liz has already attended a Utah Science Teachers Association (UtSTA) conference, and she can continue to grow her physics teacher community through the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) and the Physics Teaching Resource Agents (PTRA).

Duane Merrell is a faculty member in the Department of Physics at Brigham Young University, responsible for physical science teaching students at BYU who are earning Earth Space Science, Chemistry, Physics, and Physical Science degrees.

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