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New Science Teachers Come From Within Ranks in New Jersey

By Sara Robertson

Friday, December 18, 2009 — Currently, one in five students in New Jersey sits in a physics class without even having a fully certified teacher for that subject. But an innovative teacher training program that partners teachers, the union, and schools is changing that.

Instead of drafting science professionals into the state’s high schools as a means to fill science and math vacancies, the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning’s Progressive Science Initiative cultivates new teachers from those certified in other disciplines.

In June, 33 newly certified physics teachers return to their schools in Newark, Paterson, and Jersey City after an intensive one-year program. By the end of 2010, the program will have trained twice the number of science teachers than are currently in the entire state. 

Participants can teach physics while learning subject matter and skills needed to teach science, due to a waiver passed by the New Jersey legislature. “Because of that waiver, we have 1,500 students taking PSI Physics courses where there previously was no program,“ said NEA Executive Committee member Joyce Powell, who was one of the developers of the program and chairs the center’s board. 

Teachers say the program shows them the connection of physics to other subjects, like mathematics, and to convey to students how useful a physics education can be. Ninth-grade math and physics teacher Emmanuel Ikheloa has an engineering, math, and science background, but the Progressive Science Initiative was the first to tap all of those areas for the better of his students. “Finally I’m able to bring out everything I have as a package in order to help empower my students to embrace science,” said Ikheloa, who now has students expressing interest in becoming engineers.

Teachers like Ikheloa, “heard a calling,” said NEA Secretary-Treasurer Becky Pringle, who spoke at a reception Wednesday honoring participants. Also attending were architects and partners of the program, including the New Jersey Education Association, the New Jersey Department of Education, and the Newark Teachers Union.  

Chris Callahan teaches ninth-grade physics in Paramus.  “My biggest concern was getting kids motivated as freshmen,” said Callahan. “ I told them at the beginning that they had to keep an open mind and not be intimidated by the word physics.  A lot of students are surprised at how well they’re doing and how interested they are in the subject.” 

After passing the Praxis exam in physics in general science, the participating teachers will be certified to teach physics in any New Jersey school. They will also have earned 30 credits from partner Kean University, which can be applied toward a Masters degree in curriculum and instruction. The teachers will continue to be part of an online community where materials such as textbooks, lessons, and assessments will be posted.  

Districts that sign onto the program agree to completely overhaul their current science program. Traditionally, high school students would take physics as juniors. Under the PSI model, it comes as freshmen.

That’s because what the students learn in freshmen algebra applies to physics instruction, and the knowledge they gain in physics helps with sophomore chemistry. "This really is a unique opportunity to be able to share lesson plans, develop the curriculum, and to help students applying what they're learning in physics to their algebra lessons," says Powell. The curriculum was developed by a corps of experienced New Jersey teachers who meet regularly to discuss and refine it. 

Technology plays a central role in the formula. In order to send teachers, districts must commit to providing a 21st Century classroom to the graduates, including a SMART Board, remote responders for students, projectors, and laptops. 

The next group of teachers begins in January with nearly 60 teachers starting the program. And the Center for Teaching and Learning is developing a Progressive Math Initiative, aimed at increasing the number of middle school math teachers. 

When it comes to measuring success, program leaders point to an increase in the number of ninth-graders who want to continue with tenth-grade AP physics. Typically two percent of tenth-graders move on to physics. Now, in Newark alone, more than 50 percent plan to tackle the advanced physics course, according to Robert Goodman, the center’s director.

“We are taking great teachers and turning them into great science teachers,” he said, "as well as changing how students perceive science.”


RELATED LINKS

View a short video on the Progressive Science Initiative

Learn more about NEA's Priority Schools Campaign

New Jersey Education Association 

New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning 

Progressive Science Initiative

Kean University