University-High School Physics Partnership Enhances Classrooms Statewide

The following article I wrote was published in the Rockford Register Star October 17, 2021

Only 15-25% of students in the region graduate with a physics course on their transcript.

Yet physics is seen as a gateway course to science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors.

Simply taking a physics course in high school correlates to higher ACT and SAT scores, success in any college science course and tenacity in college science programs.

Physics majors, on average score highest on both the medical (MCAT) and law (LSAT) entrance exams.

In the region, we have many employment opportunities in these fields such as Collins Aerospace, Thermal Fisher and three different hospitals. In short, robust high school physics programs have a direct impact on college admissions and future employment. Yet our programs are lacking.

This is not a problem unique to the Rockford region. Though the state of Illinois boasts some of the top physics degree programs in the nation and two of seventeen national labs, low enrollment is typical across the state outside of the Chicago area.

It’s a vicious cycle: few sections means a full-time physics teacher is not necessary so the physics sections go to an out-of-field teacher. This is not unusual; only 24% of physics teachers nationwide have a physics degree.

Without a robust background in physics, and without other colleagues with whom to collaborate, teaching physics can be an immense challenge and very isolating, particularly for out-of-field teachers. This directly impacts the quality of instruction which ultimately impacts the student population and the community at large. The physics enrollment problem also disproportionately affects communities with lower incomes and higher diversity. 

To address this challenge, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC) established the Illinois Physics and Secondary Schools (IPaSS) partnership last year.

In 2019 four “master” teachers were invited to the program, of whom I was one. For the second year, the program opened up eight more fellowship positions.

Three of those have gone to Rockford area teachers Jennifer Grady at Hononegah, Elizabeth Gonzalez at Belvidere High School and Leonard Friedhoff at Freeport High School. Anna Wetherholt at Dekalb High School and Julie Zaborac from West Aurora are also involved, creating a local network of skilled, passionate teachers.  

The program consists of strong support from the university and intense professional development. Teachers spent two weeks together over the summer learning how to use the research-based materials from UIUC that are also used in their courses and then modified and developed these materials for their own use.

These materials include the online lectures, homework system as well as the iOLab, an innovative device created at the University that does everything the thousands of dollars of typical equipment can do, but in a small box for about $150. At UIUC every physics student purchases one of these devices for their lab sections, typically running smaller experiments at home prior to the lab section.

During the pandemic my high school students had these devices at home which allowed them to fully engage in labs remotely. Often students struggle with the college transition. Students of IPaSS teachers who move on to UIUC will use the same content and materials, bridging the gap between high school and college expectations. 

The four of us “expert teachers” also lead daily workshops related to not only the University material use in classrooms but also strategies related to teaching physics and course layout ideas.

We have discussed using this model to prepare teachers to present at local and national conferences. Not only is the program equipping teachers with resources, it is also empowering teachers as leaders.

During the school year teachers meet every other week for an hour to check in on goals, share ideas, struggles and materials. Indeed, it is exactly what district administrators expect us to do in our professional learning communities, but we never have other physics teachers to work with.

All of the participants have positive reflections. Jennifer Grady at Hononegah shared how valuable having concentrated time to work and connect with so many physics teachers is for her own practice.

Elizabeth Gonzalez at Bleivdere shared that she would encourage others to apply because “We can always find other ideas and resources that can improve our practice and we can always help others to find what they need.” Julie Zaborac at West Aurora shared, “I get more ideas and feedback from this group than I could possibly receive anywhere else.”

Most teachers care deeply about their craft, but often must find a balance between the ideal classroom they envision and what they have the time and resources to create. The IPaSS program provides a space where teachers can make these decisions with evidence-based practices while also growing in our craft. 

UIUC would like to see the program continue to expand, doubling participation each year, to increase the quality of physics education state-wide. Applications are currently being accepted for 16 spots for next year. 


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