GSE Professor Led Physics Teacher Education Program is #1 in Producing Physics Teachers in the Nation Two Years in a Row

March 26, 2018

Distinguished Professor Eugenia Etkina, both a physics educator who directs the physics teacher preparation program and works in the field of Physics Education Research (PER), has been at Rutgers Graduate School of Education (GSE) for 21 years. Her leadership of the Physics Teacher Preparation Program has led to the production of the most physics teachers in the nation two years running. This year, the GSE had 8 graduates. The year before, the GSE graduated 10 physics teachers.  As in past years, the GSE’s physics education program has once again been inducted into The 5+ Club by the Physics Teacher Education Coalition. "The 5+ Club" is designed to recognize institutions that graduate 5 or more physics teachers in a given year. The great majority of institutions graduate less than two physics teachers a year, and the most common number of graduates is zero. Graduating 5 or more physics teachers a year is a significant achievement, helping to address the severe national shortage of high school physics teachers.

Etkina was born and raised in the Soviet Union where she made a series of strategic decisions that would eventually lead her to the GSE. Etkina’s father was a physicist and her mother was a mathematician. She knew that she wanted to be a teacher and she was thinking first of teaching history. However, given that the teaching of history in the Soviet Union was dictated in large part by government propaganda, Etkina felt that she could not pursue this as a career as it would mean not being truthful to her students. Pondering possible career paths, she considered physics and mathematics. The possibility of studying and teaching physics seemed exciting to Etkina particularly as she would be dealing with facts that could not be disputed politically and she could conduct exciting experiments! Thus began Etkina’s long and distinguished career in physics education.

She credits her love for physics to an astrophysics professor who had a different teaching approach from her other instructors. “He created an environment where we were solving mysteries in lectures instead of just listening and it was amazing,” recalls Etkina. “So, I fell in love in astrophysics and graduated with a degree and certification to teach physics and astronomy. And I taught high school physics for 13 years in Moscow.”

Her time there would be cut short. Due to rising political tensions in Russia in 1995, as well as the potential for her son to be drafted into war and her husband’s work in experimental physics suffering due to unavailable funding, they began looking for a way out of Russia. With a stroke of luck, they were both employed by Rutgers University and moved to the United States. She began teaching physics and within two years, applied and was given a position at the GSE as the Assistant Professor in Science Education.

“I didn’t expect to be hired, but they hired me. This was in 1997, and here I am 21 years later. The most amazing thing to me was that the GSE believed in me twice,” says Etkina. “Once when they hired me as someone who had no knowledge of the American education system at the time, and a second time in 2001 when I led the revision of the science education program so that each science would have its own teacher preparation program. That is how the Physics Teacher Preparation Program began at the GSE. If not for the GSE’s belief in me, we would not be here today and for that I am very grateful.”

So, what does it take to have a leading nationally recognized physics education program? According to Etkina, a unique set of factors that no other institution has. “I don’t think there is any other graduate program in the nation where physics teachers are prepared separately instead of in a group of various sciences,” says Etkina. “We have six courses in which our students learn how to teach physics. Students in the program also teach physics every semester they are in the program.”

In Etkina’s program, there are no lectures, no direct instruction; the students engage in guided inquiry, and they use the curriculum that she developed to build their own curriculum as physics teachers in high schools. They start teaching right away in a Rutgers physics course that follows the same philosophy that she is trying to instill in her students. During the very first semester they learn to practice what they are learning in Etkina’s courses. Later, they do their student teaching with the cooperating teachers who are the graduates of the program.

These factors have led to the production of some accomplished graduates and teachers. Matt Blackman, one of Etkina’s students, is developing physics video games – which have been played by over 6 million people across the globe. Another alum, Jim Flakker, has had students who won a competition to have their experiments taken up to the International Space Station. Some of Etkina’s students teach courses in the Physics Teacher Education Program here at the GSE.

In 2014, Etkina was awarded the Robert A. Millikan Medal by the American Association of Physics Teachers for her contributions to the field of physics education. One of her many contributions to the field is Physics Union Mathematics (PUM) which was created as a way to fill the need for free and quality physics teaching materials for educators. The PUM website currently has over 2000 teachers using it across the globe. The National Science Foundation initially funded this project which was led by Etkina, other colleagues from Rutgers, and her graduates – high school teachers. They developed new curriculum modules that contain activities for the students, whole lessons, assessments, and workshops for teachers. Educators were now armed with inquiry-based modules that were consistent with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and are free.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Etkina’s work is the community she has built around physics and physics education. With a community of over 130 educators across the state, Eugenia continues to impact her students as they move through life as educators. “We have a Facebook group where people can ask questions or talk about some difficulties they are having and share ideas,” says Etkina. “We meet once a month at the GSE on Friday nights for three hours and just talk about various things related to physics and education. We do cool experiments and solve difficult problems. In large part due to this support system, I find that my students don’t quit.”

Etkina’s advice to aspiring physics educators is: “Love physics and do not think that there are people in the world who cannot learn it. Everyone is born as a natural scientist because that is how you learn as a child. Do not see physics as a set of formulas that you need to memorize but see it as a way of thinking that can help you in anything that you do and help you make decisions. The study of physics, if taught correctly, can be very empowering.”

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