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Looking for leaders in physics education? Try New Jersey.

Schools in the Garden State are changing the order of science classes in high school and recruiting more teachers. As a result, more diverse students are getting access to physics – and liking it. 

Charlie Wood/The Christian Science Monitor
Yuriy Zavorotniy (l.) helps Denise Cole and her team setup a mirror during an optics lab on May 31, 2017, in Teterboro, N.J. Mr. Zavorotniy often starts off class with hands-on physics experiments so students can 'learn by doing.'

Four adults huddle around a mirror, but rather than their reflections, it’s the light beams they’re focusing on.

Their experimentation is part of an optics lab for educators, one designed to help preserve the teaching of physics, which is increasingly in jeopardy in the United States. The instructor for this session, Yuriy Zavorotniy  – one of the architects of a successful science curriculum changing the face of physics education in New Jersey – hopes to solve two problems at the same time: making high school physics accessible to all students while filling a dearth of qualified teachers.

Mentoring teachers is part of an access-to-physics revolution that is happening across New Jersey. Trenton, one of the cities leading the charge, is training teachers and upending the way the subject is taught by allowing students to take it freshman rather than senior year. As a result, more students from a variety of backgrounds are becoming well-versed in velocity and static electricity.

“We’re giving every student in Trenton access to physics and chemistry, even students with disabilities,” says Michael Tofte, supervisor for K-12 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in the district, which is about 97 percent African-American and Latino. “It will be on their transcripts when they go to apply for colleges.... The problem-solving skills ... will be helpful in 21st-century careers.” 

Helping build a foundation for future Einsteins is imperative now that physics education is in crisis. Only about 40 percent of high schoolers take it, and 40 percent of schools don’t even offer it, a figure that exceeds half when it comes to schools that are largely African-American and Latino. Just 1 in 20 physics majors harbors aspirations of becoming a high school teacher. But Robert Goodman, founder of the program Mr. Zavorotniy works with, seeks to re-engineer that pipette-thin pipeline with a batch of curriculums called the Progressive Science Initiative (PSI).

With so few physics graduates opting to pursue careers in education, the nonprofit New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), manager of the PSI curriculums and training program, flips the traditional career path by taking certified educators and teaching them physics.

Now in its tenth year, CTL is the nation’s largest producer of physics teachers, with an average of 27 earning credentials annually. By comparison, most university programs produce fewer than two each year, though some get into the teens. The curriculum has even spread abroad, with pilot projects in The Gambia and Argentina. (Schools must be willing to teach physics in ninth grade in order to participate, which has posed a challenge to broader implementation because it requires a shift in the typical biology-chemistry-then physics mindset.)

An intensive summer training course can get an English or math teacher into the physics classroom come fall. Coaching and weekly training classes continue throughout the year, keeping teachers a few months ahead of their students and ending with the state’s standardized certification exam to teach physics. Schools often pay for the $8,000 program, making this career-booster a win-win for both teachers and districts.

Seasoned math teacher Denise Cole, one of the pupils in Zavorotniy’s class in Teterboro, admits picking up physics was tougher than expected. This past year she studied Advanced Placement (AP) physics while teaching algebra-based physics to special-needs students, many of whom are on the autism spectrum, at the private Windsor School in Pompton Lakes, N.J.

“I’m picking up momentum and going deeper,” she says. Next year she plans to teach a special Physics 2 class so her students, who tend to learn at a slower pace, can complete the extensive coursework, which touches on ideas in particle physics that even some college curriculums don’t reach.

Closing the achievement gap

But the teacher explosion is only half of the equation. PSI’s innovative teaching methods are catapulting students to new levels of achievement.

In Trenton, for example, where only a small percentage of students meet state standards, over three-quarters of ninth-graders passed physics in 2015-16, a third with A's or B's.

In schools using PSI, African-American students were nearly 11 times more likely to participate in the Advanced Placement Physics B exam and 3.4 times more likely to pass it than African-Americans in non-PSI schools, a 2016 study found. And they are narrowing the gap between their scores and the national average among students of all races.

For Mrs. Cole’s students, the benefits extend beyond grades. “The kids are just so proud,” she says. “It’s just a builder for them as a freshman to say, ‘I took physics.’ You can see the way they light up.”

Kennisha Pressley's ninth-grade class at Trenton Central High is an example of the impact the program can have. On a recent morning, the students worked through word problems. After some strategic questioning, they figured out which formula would best calculate a vehicle’s momentum. The room was quiet until an animated discussion broke out, one student thrusting his calculator in his neighbor’s face and shaking it, as if to say “No, it’s this.”

What happened next exemplifies one of the program's pillars. One by one, the students keyed in answers on their responders, and the SMART board instantly tabulated the results.

From the student point of view, their answers are lost in the pie chart’s anonymity. But the teacher can see who's confused and when the class needs an on-the-spot review. What’s more, the technology inverts typical participation incentives. With the teacher waiting for everyone to respond, it’s not answering that attracts the spotlight.

“I don’t have to pick on them and they don’t have to say the wrong answer in front of the class,” explains Ms. Pressley.

The SMART Board and responder technology, often subsidized by Department of Education or National Education Association grants, amplifies classic educational techniques, letting teachers repeatedly poll the entire class with questions baked into the pre-made presentations that form the curriculum’s fabric. Add a pinch of working with friends, and it’s no wonder kids suddenly enjoy physics class.

The PSI system answers another long-held prayer of physics teachers: early math integration. Rather than waiting for assumed upperclassmen algebraic skills, PSI provides a first-year algebra course that delivers the tools physics classes need. The symbiosis puts to rest that dreaded math question, “When are we going to use this?” while building a foundation for future courses in biology and chemistry.

Charlie Wood/The Christian Science Monitor
Max Elias (red sweatshirt, right) and his team prepare a protective helmet for a melon-drop lab, a twist on the classic egg-drop experiment, while AP Physics teacher Adam Behr supervises on May 30, 2017, in Trenton, N.J.

Birth of the revolution

The story of the physics revolution here traces back to Dr. Goodman’s experience with a school counselor telling him not to bother with math or science because he was no good at them. For his required science course in college, he chose physics and fell in love, later transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before going on to lead several companies.

“No one knows what they are able to do until they get exposed to it,” he says.

When he became a teacher nearly 20 years ago, Goodman landed with freshmen at Bergen County Technical High School in Teterboro, N.J., and quickly found that the pre-engineering students didn’t have the algebra base they needed. To help, he designed a math-heavy physics curriculum, and it became so popular that within a few years all the freshmen were taking the course.

People started to take notice after Bergen Tech rocketed to the top of the AP Physics rankings, and CTL was born. Now the state enjoys nearly twice as many physics teachers, enabling otherwise-struggling districts like Trenton to offer the subject.

Trenton, with about 2,400 high school students, now has 20 teachers certified to teach physics. All but one or two came through CTL training, and they are a diverse group – racially, linguistically, and by gender.

Less planning, more responsibility

Teachers appreciate how the program’s pre-packaged activities – including homework, evaluations, and hands-on labs – shift the burden of work from planning to actual teaching. But the course still isn’t entirely plug-and-play. Using teacher talent to add “juicy details” is essential, says Adam Behr, who teaches AP Physics at Trenton High. “If you just run through the slides ... it’s dry, and the kids will fight you on it pretty hard.”

Whether it’s those wonder-sparking asides, the responders, or the early introduction to a traditionally advanced subject, something’s working wonders in New Jersey classrooms. Despite freshmen coming in “already turned off to science,” by the end of their second year Mr. Behr says at least a few students will likely earn college credit via high AP scores.

For Trenton High sophomore Max Elias, who once got low science grades, PSI has been transformative. “I like the way [physics] tries to explain how everything exactly works,” he says. “In a way, it’s beautiful.”

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect more recent physics class enrollment data. About 40 percent of high school students took physics during the 2012-2013 school year.

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