Workshop: Using Physics Education Research to Improve High School Physics

Currently, we face a potential crisis in the number of physics high school teachers who can educate high school students and prepare students for highly technical and innovative careers in physics. The demand for qualified high school physics educators is exceeding the demand for access to physics education by high school students. The shortage in qualified high school physics teachers is due to two main reasons, identified in the extant literature. First, there is simply a shortage in the number of high school teachers who can teach physics across all 50 U.S. states. While this shortage has been addressed in part by allowing teachers without a physics degree to teach physics courses, this is simply not enough. Not only is the lack of a physics background concerning, as it relates to the quality of the physics education available to high school students, but there is also an increasing student interest in physics at the high school level. This workshop aims to increase the capacity to current physics high school teachers to teach more students by implementing evidence-based and collaborative pedagogies. In addition, the workshop aims to bring together physics high school teachers, leading learning sciences experts, and physics education experts to identify opportunities to increase the capacity of U.S. physics classrooms to educate more high school students in physics. To accomplish this, the workshop will bring together experts from the divergent fields of the learning sciences, physics education research, and high school physics teachers. The integration of evidence-based collaborative teaching strategies, in collaboration with current high school physics teachers who can integrate pedagogical expertise and research expertise in their own classrooms has the potential to dramatically shift not only how we educate high school students, but also provide insights into how to foster collaboration between experts in diverging fields to identify impactful future research.

A 25-person week-long workshop is proposed to provide a series of sessions from leading learning scientists, education researchers, and physics education researchers on evidence-based pedagogical strategies to transform high school physics curricula across representative high schools. The workshop will contribute toward addressing the considerable shortage of high school physics educators in every state in the U.S., even though enrollments in high school physics have been steadily increasing since the 1980s. In addition to a shortage of high school physics teachers in the U.S. and increased student enrollments, less than half of high school physics courses in the U.S. are taught by an educator with a physics degree.

This workshop will be a week-long event on July 13-17, 2020 held at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The workshop will be organized around three topics:

  • Reviewing evidence-based student centered pedagogies that can be incorporated into physics high school classrooms, in the intersection of the learning sciences (active learning strategies, peer-to-peer learning, collaborative learning, motivation), physics education research, and teacher professional development and development of pedagogical content knowledge
  • Exploring the affordances that teachers have in high school physics classrooms to incorporate more evidence-based practices and research methods to empower current educators to assess what works in their own classrooms
  • Identifying novel opportunities for research collaborations that can improve: 1) physics high school instruction and 2) recruitment and retention of physics high school teachers

We aim to close the gap between the use of teaching methods in high school physics that benefit fewer students and increasing curricular innovations, based on the presentation of leading educational researchers, to foster what is known about the most effective and high impact study skills, motivation, peer-to-peer learning, and persistence in physics. Because we plan to also incorporate peer-to-peer learning to start discussions amongst workshop participants and because we also plan to collect, analyze, and disseminate their curricular redesigns, it is the participants who will help our workshop community identify the challenges to tackle given the increases in student demands for access to physics high school classrooms.

While our short-term goals are to provide access to relevant evidence-based teaching practices to transform high school physics curricula, we also aim to strengthen partnerships between high school teachers, their professional peers, and leading physics educational researchers. Workshop partnerships have the potential to spark novel ideas for curricular interventions and potential interventions that could inform scaled up initiatives. Workshop participants will also have the option of participating in a research study focused on understanding current challenges for physics high school teachers. Thus, the broader impacts are two-fold. In addition to improving physics high school curriculum our second aim is to better understand how to overcome challenges faced by high school teachers and to develop partnerships between high school educators and learning and higher education experts to increase the number of students who have access to a quality physics education. As a result of bringing these different communities into a single workshop, the set of diverse perspectives, could be a source of innovation focused at solving challenges that go beyond access to physics education and affect STEM success at the university level, long-term.


Workshop Co-chairs
Eric Mazur, Harvard University
Isaura J. Gallegos, Harvard University
Kathryn Hollar, Harvard University

Program Committee
Peter Dourmashkin, MIT
Michael Sweet, Northeastern University,

NSF Contact
Krastan Blagoev