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ASU alleviates physics teacher shortage, strengthens STEM pathway

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  • Jane Jackson/Arizona State University Physics Department

Teachers In An ASU Modeling Workshop Collaborate To Build A Scientific Model From Their Lab Investigation Data. Photo Courtesy Jane Jackson/Arizona State University

Seventy high school physics and chemistry teachers enhanced their teaching skills at Arizona State University over the summer. Most teach in Arizona public schools, but several came from other states and four were sent by the Ministry of Education in Singapore.

Teachers chose from seven graduate courses, including four Modeling Workshops, which are research-based courses that focus on deep content and take a hands-on approach to instruction. These courses empower teachers to integrate physics or chemistry with technology, engineering, and math so that students learn how to design experiments, analyze data, and defend conclusions.

Teachers in an ASU Modeling Workshop collaborate to build a scientific model from their lab investigation data. Photo courtesy Jane Jackson/Arizona State University

Teachers in an ASU Modeling Workshop collaborate to build a scientific model from their lab investigation data. Photo courtesy Jane Jackson/Arizona State University

It’s content that the high school teachers can use immediately to address classroom hurdles like student passivity.

“I can already tell the difference my first day back,” said Isabel Pak, a chemistry teacher at Chandler High School.

Now in its seventeenth year, and the only program of its kind in the state, the Modeling Instruction program in the Department of Physics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is geared toward lifelong learning.

Nearly 1,000 Arizona teachers have taken the workshops, benefiting 100,000 Arizona students annually in school districts across the state.

Beyond helping teachers engage students, the program addresses the systemic shortage of physics teachers in Arizona.

Of the 200 physics teachers in Phoenix, 75 percent don’t hold a physics degree. With Arizona’s three public universities graduating only a half-dozen physics teachers annually, and education budget cuts, schools are often forced to retrain teachers from other areas as physics teachers. Or they go without.

The shortage of high school physics courses prevents students from pursuing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) majors in college, because physics is the chief pathway to STEM majors and STEM related careers, according to research at the University of South Florida, Harvard, and Boston College.

Students who receive hands-on physics instruction in high school are three times more likely to earn a STEM degree than students whose last high school science course was chemistry, this research shows.

It’s a challenge that the program’s co-director Jane Jackson sees as the essential mission of the program.

“The ASU Modeling Instruction program is crucial. Arizona’s economic health depends on a strong K-12 education that includes robust physics courses for all,” Jackson said. “Physics is everywhere. Physics is STEM. When students are taught using Modeling Instruction, they become critical and creative thinkers — essential to meet our looming 21st century challenges.”

The Modeling Instruction program is designated as an Exemplary K-12 Science Program by the U.S. Department of Education, and it is recognized as an Accomplished STEM Program by Change the Equation, a coalition of Fortune 500 companies.

It can lead to a master’s degree in Natural Science. Since 2003, 70 teachers have earned the master’s degree.

Two major donors, Boeing and Salt River Project, make it affordable for teachers to attend by providing partial tuition scholarships and program support.

For the teachers, the ASU Modeling Instruction program is a lifeline for their careers.

“I have been teaching physics and mathematics now for over 20 years, and was fortunate to be trained in Modeling Instruction as a pre-service teacher in 1993. If not for Modeling pedagogy and its supportive community of instructors, I would likely have left teaching within my first five years”, said Kelli Gamez Warble, Teacher-in-Residence in the ASU Department of Physics.

Learn more about the ASU Modeling Instruction Program at

About the Division of Natural Sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Arizona State University

The Division of Natural Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences serves as the hub for scientific inquiry, exchange and collaboration at Arizona State University. We transform science education and research discovery in Arizona and in the nation. Our aim is to provide the best possible education for the broadest spectrum of qualified students, and be an engine for redefining research and discovery and an avenue for contributing scientific expertise to the areas of greatest human need.

This effort has proved transformative, a springboard for the launch of three schools, three departments, 17 world-class research centers and one-of-a-kind institutes offering 28 undergraduate degree programs, 15 master’s degree programs, and 19 PhD programs. Natural Sciences 469 faculty, (of which 284 are Tenured and tenure track) are recognized internationally and create meaningful change through $93 million in research expenditures in 2014 (82% of CLAS research dollars.)

Our students come from all walks of life and experiences. Natural Sciences represents 55% of total CLAS graduate students and 39% of total CLAS doctoral students. Natural sciences alumni educate youth and head companies, excel in legal, medical, political and other professional careers. Graduates use their broad skill sets to negotiate the rapid changes in emerging technologies and society, and as core strengths to pursue careers and opportunities of the future.

For more information, please contact