Physics Teaching Major vs Physics Major
One thing that’s been on my mind is the extent to which our physics teaching majors are or are not developing identities as physicists/physics majors. Coupled with this issue of identity development is the concern that our physics teaching majors are not strongly integrated socially and academically with the rest of the physics majors.
There are a couple of factors driving this:
Physics teaching majors are not merely physics majors. They are also MTeach students. MTeach has a strong presence in their undergraduate trajectory. More specifically, students in a particular cohort are likely to take eight courses together to fulfill their minor in secondary education. MTeach has a very nice informal gathering space, where MTeach students hang out, get work done, etc. It’s a place where students are forging their sense of belonging in a community and developing identities as math and science teachers.
Most, but certainly not all of other physics majors, go through the calculus-based introductory physics sequence. In their sophomore year, most physics majors take a year of modern physics and a year of theoretical physics (i.e., math methods). So in the first two years of the program, a cohort of physics majors will have taken 6 physics courses together. Being in those courses and hanging out /working in the physics majors lounge working is partly where physics majors forge their sense of belonging to the community and develop identifies as physics majors / physicists.
Most of our physics teaching majors, however, are going through the algebra-based physics course, not the calculus-based course with the physics major cohort. For some, this is because they decide they want to pursue physics teaching only after taking our algebra-based physics course. For those who know early on they want to pursue physics teaching, it’s likely they don’t take the calculus-based course because they haven’t taken calculus yet, and are advised to take the algebra-based course. And while the graduate school track physics major concentrations require that students take the sophomore year theoretical physics course, physics teaching majors don’t have to take theoretical physics if they take both linear algebra and differential equations from the math department. So far, very few physics teaching majors take theoretical physics.
What does this mean for our physics teaching majors? In the first two years that our physics teaching majors are in the program, they take only two physics courses with other physics majors–the year of modern physics in their sophomore year. They don’t become integrated deeply at all into the a cohort of physics majors, because they weren’t in the same courses freshman year and then they don’t struggle through the very challenging calculus-based physics and theoretical physics course with the rest of the physics majors. Most of the physics majors go onto take a demanding course load in their junior and senior years, including a mix of required and elective courses, including some courses that verge on graduate level work like courses in quantum field theory, general relativity, etc. Physics teaching students take a few more required physics courses at the upper-level (e.g., thermodynamics), but they have less required physics content courses (in part) because they are required to take a sequence of physics teaching courses offered in the department. This is just to say that, even in their junior and senior years, physics teaching majors are unlikely to have social or academic interactions with the rest of the physics majors. And while they could elect to take more upper-level physics electives, they are not likely to, in part due to peer groups but also because many physics teaching majors are dual certifying in mathematics, so they are busy taking other content course in the math department and their education courses which required a lot of field experience time.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and then it really hit me hard last night when only one physics teaching major came to the annual physics department pot-luck / party / gathering. Not surprisingly, the one physics teaching major that came is quite socially integrated into the physics major cohort, chose to do research in physics not physics education, and elected to take theoretical physics even though it’s not required.
I’m not quite sure what this all means yet, and there’s other issues at play that I haven’t described, but I’m thinking hard about this. The issue of navigating multiple communities is complex, and I’m hoping by choosing to write about some of this that I will develop some insight into what this all means.