Member Institution Montana State

Montana State


Richard (Dick) Smith
Physics Department
EPS Building Rm 264
Montana State University
Bozeman MT 59717

Montana State Website

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Future teachers have special needs and any investment in their education that will allow them to teach the material effectively to their future students is an investment that is worth making. The pre-service teachers need an in depth study of fundamental concepts in introductory physics and physical science. Many of these pre-service teachers lack the necessary scientific reasoning and proportional reasoning skills that they will need as teachers. They must learn to view science as a process, rather than as a canonized body of facts. They also need to be made aware of those common conceptual and reasoning difficulties that are likely to be found in their students. And finally, these needs should be met in a teaching/ learning environment that models effective pedagogy. 

That pedagogy is inquiry. PHSX 201: Physics by Inquiry for our future elementary school teachers is entirely laboratory based. Instead of absorbing facts from a lecture, the students make observations and build scientific models to account for their observations. The course emphasizes the development of basic concepts and reasoning skills, and efforts are made to actively engage students in the
learning process. Staff-to-student ratio is of necessity high (two instructors for approximately 22 students), and interactions with staff are through Socratic dialog:
the instructors do not give answers, but help the students to find their own.

The future high school and middle school teachers are required to take the trigbased introductory sequence in College Physics, PHSX 205 and PHSX 207.  These courses were “reformed” by replacing the traditional two-hour lab class with an inquiry-based “tutorial” each week. The students are required in the tutorial portion of the class to develop the most important concepts of physics from the
ground up, using worksheets developed by the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington. Rather than passively soaking up information from a lecture, they have to actively claim the concepts as their own through hands-on experimentation and careful reasoning. Only after they come to understand a principle well enough to correctly verbalize it with a small group of their classmates and with an instructor are they allowed to move on to a new topic. Each tutorial section contained approximately 20 students and three instructors (one graduate student TA assigned by the department, and two peer-instructors who had previously excelled in the course). The instructors are trained to ask questions of the students instead of providing answers.

While our undergraduate curriculum for pre-service teachers is fairly strong, we would like to increase the number of students who are choosing the Physics Teaching option for their bachelors degree. The extent to which we work with inservice physics and science teachers has been fairly limited.

We would like to increase the number of students entering the Physics program and choosing to pursue the ?Teaching Option.? Here at MSU we have three options from which Physics majors can choose: Interdisciplinary, Professional, or
Teaching. The vast majority of our roughly 100 undergraduate students pursue the first two options, with only about 4 students in the Teaching Option at any given

Two faculty members from the Physics department have recently worked with the College of Education mentoring in-service teachers and modeling inquiry based techniques that can be used in K-12 classrooms. We plan to carry on our collaboration with the College of Education to continue reaching out to in-service teachers in Montana. Included in our outreach plans will be a concerted effort to reach school districts that contain a large percentage of under- represented and under-served students as well as an emphasis on both in-person and on-line components.

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