JACKSONVILLE — A professional development program at Jacksonville State University this month is helping high school teachers from Alabama and Georgia better educate their students in physics and chemistry.
Twenty-one teachers are attending the program, which began Tuesday and runs through June 20. The program, called Improving Physics and Chemistry Teaching in Secondary Education, is in its 12th year at JSU.
Nouredine Zettili, a physics professor at JSU, teaches physics to the teachers in a lecture-style presentation, discussing the principles of physics as he would with his own students. Zettili started the program in 2003 after he saw a disturbing trend in his physics students when he first started at JSU.
“Students were coming in, and did not understand the material,” Zettili said. “I spent a lot of effort deprogramming what they had learned. So I said, ‘What is the best way to help this problem?’ And it is to educate the educators.”
Educators in the program say they also pick up teaching techniques from program administrators and fellow teachers. After the professional development program ends, teachers will be able to take equipment from the science experiments and use them in their own classes.
The program, often shortened to IMPACTSEED, also offers five technology workshops during the academic year while providing year-round on-site support to the teachers. Zettili has plans to visit high schools around the state to give schoolwide physics and chemistry demonstrations. The program also offers year-round physics and chemistry hotlines.
This year, the program received a $145,000 federal grant, in coordination with the state’s Commission on Higher Education. JSU also funded $56,971 worth of facility usage, in-kind contribution and monetary donations.
The program is one of the longest-running programs funded by the commission.
Jim Conely, the senior office programmer for Alabama Commission on Higher Education, described Zettili’s program as extremely beneficial for high school teachers.
“The big advantage is that so many of the teachers that are assigned to teach chemistry, physics, any of the sciences, do not actually have preparation in the subject that they’re teaching,” Conely said. “This is a program that helps to fill that for those teachers.”
One of the biggest issues is that there simply aren’t enough people in fields such as chemistry and physics to educate high school students, said Jodi Peterson, director of public affairs at the National Science Teachers Association.
“Because of the industry and recession, employers are really valuing STEM skills — that’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and hiring people who might have otherwise gone into teaching,” Peterson said. “It’s a supply and demand question, really.”
Gregg Fleisher, the chief academic officer at the National Math and Science Initiative, said only 35 percent of new high school physics teachers actually got their degree in physics or physics education. Only 40 percent of chemistry teachers got their degrees in chemistry or chemistry education.
To help high schools compensate for the lack of physics and chemistry teachers, the Educational Testing Service administers tests among science teachers to ensure they have the knowledge necessary to teach students. The ETS is a nonprofit organization that creates and administers standardized tests from K-12 through higher education.
Teachers who majored a certain subject in college may be required to take a test in another field to ensure they can accurately teach the material. If a teacher is unable to pass the test in a particular field of study, he or she cannot teach in that field. Eighty-one teachers in Alabama have taken the test in chemistry, from September 2000 to June 2014, while 47 have taken the physics test.
Robin Spoon, who teaches chemistry, AP chemistry and AP biology at White Plains High School, is going through JSU’s program for the 11th time.
Much like the rest of her colleagues, she said the program’s best strength is to make the content more interesting and approachable for high schoolers. Zettili himself demonstrated properties of physics through experiments during Tuesday’s sessions at JSU.
“Anytime you can see things or touch them, better connect it to their lives,” Spoon said, “it makes it not such an abstract concept.”
Zettili said the program has been helpful for college students as well. Students whose teachers have gone through the program often understand the material better, which has resulted in increased enrollment in the physical sciences.
In the fall of 2004, the year after Zettili started the program, the number of credit hours taught in physics jumped from 810 to 1,000. The total number of hours for chemistry jumped from 3,340 to 3,818. In the 2012-2013 academic year, physics and chemistry yielded 1,206 and 4,000 credit hours, respectively. Both are all-time highs for JSU, Zettili said.