Cornell University Project Report 2009
Early Teaching Experiences (ETE)
- An Undergraduate Teaching Assistant (UTA) (formerly Learning Assistant) program was established in Spring 2008, based upon the University of Colorado model. Eight UTAs were teamed with graduate Physics TAs in facilitating cooperative learning problem solving sessions in the recitation sections of Physics 1112, a calculus-based mechanics course for non-honors physics and engineering students. Assistant Professor Erich Mueller, lecturer in Physics 1112, was an extremely enthusiastic and supportive host for the UTA program. He set up and maintained a staff Wiki, where TAs and UTAs could log their experiences.
- Major revisions to the program after the first semester – including generating exercises for the seminar more directly relevant to the cooperative session content and improving the quality of the coop exercises – have led to an overall enthusiastic response from UTA participants, and very positive reviews from the students they serve. The UTA program now services four of our introductory courses – Physics 1112, 2213, 2207 and 2208.
- An online application process has streamlined our processing of candidates.
- Six UTAs are currently enrolled in CTE program courses.
- Our current recruiting efforts, in which all TAs and faculty in introductory and core physics courses are asked to nominate potential UTAs who enjoy physics and communicate well with their peers, combined with in-class announcements and careful interviewing has improved the yield of those who pursue courses in Education from 0 in Spring 2008 to 6 in Spring 2009.
- Applications for UTA positions have increased dramatically. We received 72 applications for 10 new positions for Fall 2009. All offers were accepted. We have redirected funds from our Cornell match to allow us to support 12 new and 7 continuing UTAs. Appendix 1 shows the progress of our UTA program and recruiting efforts over the last two years.
- The UTA program provides excellent PR for the Physics Department, especially to students from outside the department who enroll in our introductory courses. It helps build team spirit among our Physics majors, and among those inside and outside physics who have interests in teaching, giving these groups another way to identify themselves within the university. We now see the UTA program as an important part of our undergraduate physics program, independent of its importance in helping to recruit future teachers.
- All UTAs benefit from being observed and receiving formative evaluation by the TIR. This helps them develop confidence that they can be effective teachers, and also helps them see that teaching effectively is a real challenge worthy of their abilities.
- In Spring 2008, UTAs and TAs generated their own cooperative learning problems, drawing on an on-line library of materials. This increased the time burden and/or took away from other preparation time, and led to an uneven experience for the P1112 students. Course faculty generated the coops in subsequent semesters.
- Cornell undergraduate students have extremely busy schedules, and many strong UTA candidates must defer their participation because of scheduling conflicts. This is complicated by the fact that scheduling of cooperative learning recitation sections is not decided by course staff until the week before the start of class.
- Students who have a declared interest in the physics major comprise less than 5% of the students who take introductory physics classes. A large expansion of the UTA program to include as many of the other 95% as possible in physics teaching activities could have tremendous benefits to the strength and perception of undergraduate physics education. How do we secure the financial resources for that expansion?
- Cornell science and engineering undergraduates are extremely interested in gaining teaching experience for the growth and credentials they know it can provide them. We need to figure out how to convert that kind of interest into a desire to become teachers.
- The Physics Department provided financial support for additional UTAs in the Spring 2008 semester.
- The PI and Physics Department Chair met with the Assistant Dean for Alumni Affairs and Development in the College of Arts and Sciences to request alumni/private contributions to sustain and expand the UTA program to include physics and teaching capable UTAs from across the university. A fundraising document was generated, and the Department Chair has met with two potential donors. Unfortunately, private giving has all but collapsed since the country’s financial crisis began in Fall 2008.
- Two Physics senior lecturers were due to retire, and the Physics Department Chair pledged to fill one of these positions with a PER trained lecturer to help run our UTA program after PhysTEC support ends. Unfortunately, because of the University’s financial crisis, the first of these positions to open up (as well as two Physics faculty lines) were eliminated to meet this year’s required budget cuts, and next year’s cuts will almost certainly eliminate additional lecturer positions.
- Our Physics Lecture Demonstration Support Specialist retired in Summer 2008. The person hired to fill this position taught high school physics for 10 years. We hope to engage her in our program once she has mastered the core parts of the demonstration support position.
- Eric Mueller, the host for the first semester of our UTA program, is our new Director of Undergraduate Studies, and enthusiastically supports our program.
- Ritchie Patterson, a physics faculty member who has worked with two of our PhysTEC courses, is our new Physics Department Chairperson, and understands and enthusiastically supports our program.
- In Spring 2008, graduate TAs involved in Physics 1112 were required to take the "Teaching and Learning Physics" seminar course together with the UTAs. The resulting discussions were very rich and varied, but there were some problems. Although the TA workload was adjusted to open time for this requirement, two TAs were particularly resentful of what they perceived to be an increased time burden and were toxic to the seminar atmosphere. TAs are no longer required to take the seminar, class atmosphere is much better, and the few TAs who elect to take the seminar truly enjoy it, contribute to it, and benefit from it. Several of our UTAs have commented that many of their TA partners would benefit from the seminar. In Fall 2009, 8 graduate students from Physics, Applied Physics and Astronomy enrolled in the course.
- UTAs and TAs are extremely busy with other commitments, and so the UTA program should make as efficient use of their time as possible. The weekly teaching and learning seminar should be tightly integrated with the physics course in which the UTAs are placed, utilizing the upcoming course material as a basis for exercises and activities. The seminar should be scheduled in the evening to reduce schedule conflicts.
- Cooperative learning session materials should be pre-programmed by senior course staff. Accompanying scripts/worksheets should be generated to help guide the TAs and UTAs in both the physics and in the pedagogical approach (as we have done for our laboratories in Physics 2207 and 2208). Coop problems and reading assignments should be distributed to UTAs and TAs at the beginning of the semester. UTAs and TAs are extremely busy during the last third of the semester, so "frontloading" should help them stay on top of their teaching responsibilities.
- The TAs that participate in our program and work with the UTAs should be volunteers, and should be screened by senior staff.
- Careful attention to student curiosity/interest in teaching during UTA interviews yields a higher likelihood of later recruitment into teaching.
- The instructional team meetings in our introductory physics courses should address PCK issues, and help TAs and UTAs alike to pre-script questioning strategies so as to shepherd students through topics of particular difficulty.
- We have initiated and developed a successful UTA program.
- The course “Teaching and Learning Physics” was created and modified to meet the needs of our students.