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Central Washington University

CWU Receives $65K to Improve Physics Education

October 29, 2012

ELLENSBURG, Wash. -- Central Washington University has received a $65,000, three-year competitive award from the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) to develop the university's physics teacher education program. CWU is one of only seven universities in the United States to receive the award this year, and one of only 29 universities to receive funding from the coalition since its inception.

The goal of PhysTEC is to improve and promote the education of future physics teachers. The project does this in part by selecting colleges and universities with strong physics education components and helping them develop their physics teacher preparation programs into national models with substantial project support. Collectively, PhysTEC-supported sites have more than doubled the number of physics teachers they graduate.

“This is a major step in helping Central develop teaching professionals,” said Bruce Palmquist, CWU professor of physics and science education, and principal investigator of the grant. “The proposal we submitted had three major aspects that made it attractive to the granting agency.”

Following CWU’s successful dual-degree physics/engineering model, this funding permits the development of a similar dual-degree program in physics and math education, allowing students in the program to attain valuable teaching certifications both fields, enhancing their employability.

“Students in the program will graduate in five years with a double major in two high-needs fields,” said Palmquist.

Secondly, the program will institute a learning assistant program, designed to give students hands-on classroom experiences as undergraduates.

“We’ve dramatically changed the way we teach physics to incorporate this part of the program,” said Palmquist. “Before we would have a large introductory physics lecture class that all students would take, then they would break out into separate labs. Now we have it structured so that we have smaller lecture classes integrated with labs, so there isn’t a disconnect between theory and application.

“The learning assistants will be in the classroom, involved in helping students learn—and learning teaching skills, such as Socratic dialogue [encouraging students to arrive at solutions themselves, rather than providing the answers to them], in the process.”

The third aspect of the program will be working with community colleges to establish an advising program that will put prospective physics teachers on the right track academically to ensure their credits will transfer properly.

“We want to have a memorandum of understanding, sort of a transfer agreement with community colleges—especially those connected with our University Centers—to establish major-ready programs,” said Palmquist, adding that CWU’s dual admission program was an added bonus for students. The dual admission program offers any student accepted into any Washington State community college acceptance to CWU.

Palmquist is also working with CWU’s Cornerstone program, in which students can take advanced placement courses in high school for college credit. Administered through CWU’s Continuing Education Office, Cornerstone offers the means for students to get a head start on a program that could lead to the dual physics/math teaching degree.

“Partnering with Cornerstone has also opened up other opportunities,” adds Palmquist. “They have offered funding for travel for CWU students to attend our professional conferences and to fund visits to observe high school programs.”

Palmquist said that much of the preparatory work for the grant will continue through the end of the school year and anticipates that the major components of the grant—the dual major program, the learning assistants training, and the coordination with the community colleges will be ready for students in fall 2013.

Media Contact: Valerie Chapman-Stockwell, CWU Public Affairs, 509-963-1518, valeriec@cwu.edu