The Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) has again honored the Virginia Tech Department of Physics as an inductee of “The 5+ Club,” a group of institutions that have graduated five or more physics teachers in a given year.

The honor puts Virginia Tech in the top 1 percent of universities for training future physics teachers. This is the fourth time the department has been awarded the honor since Virginia Tech’s program began in 2011, previously winning in 2018-19, 2017-18, and 2012-13. 

“Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University graduated eight well-prepared physics teachers in the 2020-2021 academic year,” PhysTEC stated. “Of the approximately 1,400 new teachers who are hired to teach physics each year, only 35 percent have a degree in physics or physics education. Virginia Tech’s efforts are an essential part of helping to address the critical shortage of qualified physics teachers.”

Leading the Virginia Tech PhysTEC program are John Simonetti and Alma Robinson of the Department of Physics, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science, and George Glasson and Brenda Brand in the School of Education, part of the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Brenda Brand, a professor of science education in the Virginia Tech School of Education, conducts a demonstration during a STEM fair for graduate students
Brenda Brand, a professor of science education in the Virginia Tech School of Education, conducts a demonstration during a STEM fair for graduate students. Brand leads the Virginia Tech PhysTEC program, along with John Simonetti and Alma Robinson in the Department of Physics and George Glasson in the School of Education. Photo by Andrew Adkins for Virginia Tech.

An education program of the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Association of Physics Teachers, PhysTEC said it has “helped over 60 US colleges and universities prepare new, qualified physics teachers to educate the next generation of STEM professionals and informed citizens.”

Amongst the programs designed to advance and train students who are part of Virginia Tech’s PhysTEC program are “reformed” courses that use the SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs) model; a Physics Teaching and Learning course; and early teaching experiences including a Physics Learning Assistant program and a physics outreach program. The latter allows physics students to visit local schools to excite K-12 students in science with physics activities and demonstrations.

Robinson added that the Learning Assistant (LA) program is vital to PhysTEC’s success by allowing undergraduate students to earn independent study course credit for assisting physics faculty in teaching. She also credits the work of Glasson, Brand, and the School of Education’s M.A.Ed. – Master of Arts in Education in Science Curriculum and Instruction in producing successful graduates.

“LAs help to promote more collaborative and student-centered learning in our courses by facilitating small group discussions during interactive lectures; guiding students through labs; and/or tutoring students in office hours, recitations, and/or review sessions,” she said. “The LAs are trained in the department’s Physics Teaching and Learning course to use active-engagement pedagogy and they have been very well received by both faculty and students. … Many of the LAs express a deeper understanding of physics, a greater interest in and appreciation of teaching, and a stronger relationship with the course’s instructor because of their LA experience.”

“This is a significant joint recognition from the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers of our program and students’ accomplishments — the fourth time our program has been so recognized,” said Mark Pitt, a professor and chair of the Department of Physics.

Simonetti, a professor of physics, added, “Looking at the past awardees, only five institutions have won the '5+ Club' award more times than we have. There are two institutions tied with us with four awards. I am very proud of our students. I am proud of our contributions to this important national program and this recognition of our efforts and success here at Virginia Tech.”

PhysTEC is funded by the National Science Foundation and committed to improving physics teacher education by transforming physics departments, creating successful models for teacher education programs, and disseminating best practices, according to an APS release.

Joining Virginia Tech for the 2020-2021 5+ Club are Brigham Young University; Brigham Young University-Idaho; the College of New Jersey; the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning; Rutgers University; Stony Brook University of New York; Texas State University; and the University of Central Florida.

Written by Steven Mackay