Project Results: A TIME for PHYSICS FIRST

Excerpts from the Final Evaluator’s Report, November 2015. Prepared by Christi Bergin, John Christiansen, Chia-Lin Tsai, Paula McFarling, Bridget Murphy; Assessment Resource Center, University of Missouri.

A TIME for Physics First, a model program for teaching high school physics implemented in 36 districts across the state of Missouri, was funded by an NSF Math-Science Partnership grant for 6 years (2009-2015). 

It promoted Physics First, which is a reform endorsed by the American Association of Physics Teachers in which the traditional Biology-Chemistry-Physics sequence is flipped to a Physics-Chemistry-Biology sequence using developmentally appropriate curriculum that emphasizes conceptual understanding rather than quantitative problem solving. 

The project addressed two major obstacles to schools implementing Physics First—access to conceptual curriculum and training the teacher workforce. Project staff developed a freshmen-level physics curriculum and provided extensive professional development to participating teachers that included summer scademies, coaching during the academic year, university coursework, Saturday workshops, and more. Each participating district was asked to identify a liaison to the project. Liaisons were typically from the administrative level from each district.

A TIME for Physics First trained two cohorts of roughly 30 teachers each (hereafter called Fellows). The cohorts differed in two ways: (1) time of enrollment in which Cohort 1 began training a year earlier and (2) approach to coaching in which Cohort 1 had face-to-face coaching while Cohort 2 had online mentoring. 

The goals of A TIME for Physics First were: 

1. To create a cadre of teacher-leaders who would become advocates for excellence in physics content and research-based pedagogy. 

2. To strengthen high school freshman science teachers’ and students’ understanding of physics. 

3. To enhance teachers’ pedagogy and confidence in teaching freshman physics. 

4. To promote institutional change among core partner institutions. 

5. To increase students’ science coursework




Goal 1: Create a Cadre of Teacher-Leaders who will become Advocates for Excellence in Physics Content and Research-Based Pedagogy 

Objective 1.1: Teachers will demonstrate leadership skills. 

Objective 1.2: Teachers will assume leadership positions 

  • 88% of Fellows agreed that they engaged in more leadership as a result of A TIME for Physics First
  • Liaisons reported that Fellows in their district engaged in a variety of leadership activities (e.g., collaborated and presented to colleagues, served on a committee and/or served as a Mentor). 

Coaches and Mentors reported that A TIME for Physics First helped Fellows develop as leaders.

Objective 1.3: Teachers will establish a long-term action plan for leadership. 

Fellows developed individualized leadership action plans as part of their leadership course. This was not part of the evaluation. Data on this aspect can be obtained from co-investigator Hanuscin and project-related publications.

Goal 2: Strengthen High School Freshman Science Teachers’ and Students’ Understanding of Physics 

Objective 2.1: Teachers will increase their knowledge of physics concepts. 

Fellows significantly increased in physics knowledge as measured by the TUG-K and MOSART in a pre-post1-post2 design. Fellows with low initial knowledge made the greatest gains. There was still room for growth.

97% of Fellows agreed that their understanding of physics content had increased as a result of A TIME for Physics First .

Coaches and mentors reported that Fellows had increased understanding of the physics curriculum, but that there remained room for growth.

Objective 2.2: Students of partner teachers will increase their knowledge of physics concepts. 

  • Students significantly increased in physics knowledge as measured by the TUG-K and MOSART in a pre-post design. 

94% of Fellows agreed that A TIME for Physics First helped students learn more physics content.

Goal 3: Enhance Teachers’ Pedagogy and Confidence in Teaching Freshman Physics

Objective 3.1: Teachers will increase their confidence in teaching freshman physics. 

  • In a pre-post survey, Fellows reported greater confidence for solving and teaching students to solve physics problems. Pre-post gains were greater when Fellows had more intervention dosage, supporting a causal hypothesis. 
  • 91% of Fellows agreed that as a result of A TIME for Physics First, they have become more self-reflective and more effective at promoting student learning. 
  • Coaches and mentors reported that one of the most notable developments in Fellows was growth in confidence to teach physics.

Objective 3.2: Teachers will increase their use of pedagogical skills for teaching freshman physics.

  • Fellows commented on many ways that A TIME for Physics First has increased their pedagogical skills. They reported that their students routinely use hands-on activities and make real-life applications of physics concepts. 
  • Liaisons reported observing multiple pedagogical practices from A TIME for Physics First in the classroom (e.g., students use whiteboarding) and believed other classes would benefit from the A TIME for Physics First pedagogical practices. 
  • Coaches and mentors reported that Fellows made strong growth in pedagogical skills, including pacing and differentiation, but that there was room for more growth.

Key Lessons 

Strengths of A TIME for Physics First 

Fellows indicated that the two components of A TIME for Physics First that were most important in helping them improve as teachers were the summer academies and the PLCs. Roughly two-thirds of Fellows also believed coaching/mentoring, online discussions, and peer share-a-thons were important. They indicated other components of the project (guest speakers and newsletters) were less important. 

According to Coaches and Mentors, key strengths of the project were the peer learning communities, interactive pedagogy, coaching and reflection, professional development that was authentic and sustained, and voluntary participation. 

Liaisons reported overwhelmingly positive feedback from students and A TIME for Physics First Fellows. They also reported that 50% to 75% of other stakeholders (other teachers, parents, Liaisons) were positive about A TIME for Physics First, with the remaining stakeholders being neutral. Only one respondent indicated getting any negative feedback from stakeholders about A TIME for Physics First

Challenges and Suggestions for Improvement 

Fellows, Liaisons, Coaches, and Mentors reported on a variety of challenges with the project. Principal among these was a lack of time to meet all the required obligations. Lack of time was also noted as preventing better collaboration between the Fellows and mathematics teachers. There was also a general consensus that the curriculum included too much material to cover in a year. Whereas online collaboration tools helped facilitate coaching and mentoring and PLCs, in some instances the technology was in need of improvement and served as a barrier to collaboration. 

Coaches and Mentors reported that because of the humble attitude of project staff, some challenges in the project had already been addressed. Remaining challenges included improving some aspects of Fellows’ training, such as reducing the heavy summer academy work load, putting more emphasis on pedagogy, and providing technology support. They also had suggestions for improving the curriculum (e.g., more consistent formatting, more real-world applications, and less material), although they were generally positive about the curriculum.

Advice to Other Districts That May Adopt Physics First 

Fellows were asked to provide advice to other teachers or districts that might want to implement Physics First. They responded that it takes commitment, collaboration, and time to implement well, but that it is beneficial to teachers and students. 

Liaisons were asked what are the most important pieces of advice they would give to new districts seeking to adopt Physics First. Comments that were repeated were: 

1. Choose the right teacher – one who is computer literate, willing to change practices, able to attend the trainings, and committed. 

2. Get the full support of mathematics teachers and Liaisons. 

3. Both the Fellow and the principal should attend the training. Ideally train all science staff. 

4. Promote the project to parents. 

5. Make sure students have adequate mathematics skills, or be prepared to support gaps in mathematics skills. 

6. Be prepared to spend some money and get adequate equipment. 

A TIME for Physics First has been successful in achieving important goals of this NSF project. These include: 

Fellows’ Confidence and Pedagogy 

  • Fellows in the full intervention increased their confidence in both solving physics problems and teaching their students to solve the same problems. 
  • Attending a single summer academy did not result in increased confidence for either solving or teaching physics, despite the fact that the academy was an intensive four weeks of physics exposure. However, experience with coaching/mentoring while teaching, combined with the summer academies, resulted in an increase in confidence. It is not possible from this data alone to disentangle whether coaching/mentoring or experience teaching is necessary and/or sufficient to increase confidence because they co-occurred. 
  • Fellows’ use of high-quality pedagogy, particularly active engagement in inquiry and Socratic questioning, increased. 

Fellows’ and Students’ Physics Knowledge 

  • Fellows’ physics content knowledge increased, particularly for those with the least knowledge at pretest. Interventions like A TIME for Physics First can help teachers who lack content knowledge rapidly acquire the physics knowledge they need to become more effective physics teachers. 
  • Students’ physics content knowledge increased (although no comparison group was used). Gains in students’ physics content knowledge are statistically significantly greater for more intensely trained teachers. 
  • Students increased in mathematics learning, problem-solving skills, other NGSS scientific dispositions, and were better prepared for subsequent STEM courses, according to key stakeholders. Students reported increased mathematics course-taking. 
  • Interventions like A TIME for Physics First can significantly increase student enrollment in physics. At present 13,000 more students are taking Physics First annually in Missouri schools as a result of two cycles of this project. Thus Physics First has reached about 18% of Missouri high school students.

Student Attitude 

  • Many Fellows (56%) and Liaisions (30%) felt that A TIME for Physics First improved students’ attitude toward science and interest in taking more science courses. 
  • For freshmen, students who participated in A TIME for Physics First reported greater motivation and in-class engagement than comparison students. However, years later as seniors in high school and university students A TIME for Physics First participants did not report greater motivation or science course-taking than comparison students. 

Project Personnel and Funding

Meera Chandrasekhar, Principal Investigator, Dorina Kosztin, Co-Principal Investigator, Sarah Hill, Project Director, and Karen King, Senior Personnel, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Missouri, Columbia MO

Anne Wallenmeyer, Co-Principal Investigator, Springfield Public Schools 

Dorina Mitrea, Co-Principal Investigator, Department of Mathematics, University of Missouri 

Deborah Hanuscin, Co-Principal Investigator, Department of Physics and Astronomy and Department of Learning, Teaching, and Curriculum, University of Missouri 

James Spain, Senior Personnel, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies, University of Missouri 

Sunder Balasubramanian, Senior Personnel, Department of Physics, Lincoln University 

Dennis Nickelson, Senior Personnel, Department of Mathematics and Physics, William Woods University 

Sara Torres, Senior Personnel, Arizona Science Teachers Association

Funding: National Science Foundation Mathematics and Science Partnership Teacher Institute program, NSF-DUE 0928924 (2009-15)