Physics Education Research group awarded $2.6M grant for Illinois Physics and Secondary Schools (IPaSS) Partnership Program

Siv Schwink for Illinois Physics
7/13/2020

University of Illinois Physics Professor Eric Kuo poses outside the Grainger Engineering Library on the Urbana campus. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Illinois Physics Professor Eric Kuo poses outside the Grainger Engineering Library on the Urbana campus. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The Physics Education Research (PER) group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has received a $2.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to improve the quality and accessibility of high school physics courses across the State of Illinois through a new program called the Illinois Physics and Secondary Schools (IPaSS) Partnership Program. The IPaSS program already kicked off its first intensive summer institute in mid-June, welcoming a small cohort of four physics teachers. The number of teachers in the IPaSS program will expand incrementally each year over the four years of grant funding, maxing out at 40 Illinois physics teachers.

The goal of the new program will be to provide high school students across the state with the highest quality high school physics experience, engaging students’ interest in STEM fields and preparing them to succeed at competitive research institutions like the U of I. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math—fields the U.S. government has recognized are a high educational priority for a strong tech-field workforce. The program will not only help align existing high school physics courses with university-level expectations, but will also provide support for under-resourced high schools to offer physics courses for the first time.According to Illinois Physics Professor Tim Stelzer, two recent PER hires in the Physics Department—secondary education partnership coordinator Maggie Mahmood and Professor Eric Kuo—were key in winning the award and will provide critical expertise needed to run the new program.

Maggie Mahmood, the University of Illinois Physics Department's secondary education partnership coordinator, stands in front of the Grainger Engineering Library on the Urbana campus. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Maggie Mahmood, the University of Illinois Physics Department's secondary education partnership coordinator, stands in front of the Grainger Engineering Library on the Urbana campus. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Mahmood will be responsible for coleading the teacher professional development activities with the department’s coordinator of physics teacher development, Morten Lundsgaard. These year-round activities will introduce teachers to the U of I introductory physics course materials and will provide space and support for the teachers as they work to integrate this instruction into their own high school curricula.

Lundsgaard notes, “Teachers in the program will benefit from an intensive summer institute, as well as weekly meetings throughout the school year dedicated to lesson planning and sharing best teaching practices.”

Mahmood brings eight years of high school physics teaching experience to the project, giving her a unique perspective on the program’s benefits. 

 “As a teacher, my experience is that co-planning with other teachers can help you get a new perspective and transform your teaching practice more than you would imagine,” asserts Mahmood. “But often, schools have only one physics teacher on staff. By bringing together high school physics teachers and University of Illinois physics education researchers, IPaSS aims to cultivate a community of educators collectively working to develop high-quality high school physics classroom experiences for students.”

Kuo will lead the project’s research component, which seeks to understand how the program improves the quality of high school physics teaching and contributes to students’ future STEM engagement and success.

Kuo notes, “At the U of I, introductory physics effectively acts as a gatekeeper for students who want to get an engineering degree. This project will help us better understand how to enhance the overall continuity of students’ educational experiences as they transition from high school to college and will increase interest in STEM degrees like engineering, while also making them more attainable.”

University of Illinois coordinator of physics teacher development Morten Lundsgaard trains student learning assistants in Fall 2019. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Illinois coordinator of physics teacher development Morten Lundsgaard trains student learning assistants in Fall 2019. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Stelzer, who is the primary investigator on the NSF grant, says this project will enable the Physics Department to realize its long-sought goal of a high school partnership program that expands the demographics of incoming physics students. Stelzer credits former head of department Professor Dale Van Harlingen with having been an early advocate for such a program.

“Dale planted the seed for future implementation, encouraging the PER group to assemble a team capable of fulfilling this vision,” Stelzer notes.

According to Kuo, the new program builds on the department’s history of educational outreach, led by Lundsgaard. The program will take advantage of the department’s award-winning curriculum titled smartPhysics, developed for the department’s introductory courses. And it will introduce an affordable, first-of-its-kind, hand-held laboratory measurement device called iOLab, created by Illinois Physics Professor Mats Selen, which is currently used in the department’s introductory physics courses. It also relies on departmental IT infrastructure and data management solutions managed by the department’s director of information management, Rebecca Wiltfong, who will act as a point of contact for teachers as they navigate the university’s web systems on a daily basis.

Mahmood notes that, although this project builds on the past, it’s all about a brighter future.

“Our goal is to open more equitable, visible, and viable pathways for students into STEM education and STEM careers,” she says.

 

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