Our PhysTEC Project: Collaborating with a Resident Teacher to Improve an Elementary Science Field Experience


Cody Sandifer, Towson University

Laura Lising, Towson University

Lisa Tirocchi, Johnnycake Elementary





During 2004-2005, Towson University’s Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) project focused on improving our “Teaching Science in the Elementary School” field experience course in two ways:  (1) by making the different sections of the course more uniformly aligned with the course goals, and (2) by increasing the amount and quality of inquiry in the undergraduate interns’ science lessons.  To help improve the course, the project team -- which included a full-time teacher-in-residence -- created and implemented workshops for the elementary site mentor teachers, and also arranged for a meeting between the different course instructors.  End-of-semester surveys and observations of the interns’ science lessons revealed that the project was successful at improving the field experience course.  Included in this report are project goals and activities, the role of the teacher-in-residence, and a list of factors that may challenge the project’s ultimate sustainability.


Background and Context


The PhysTEC Project


The Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) project is a nationwide project sponsored by the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Physics, and the American Association of Physics Teachers that has the goal of improving science preparation for K-12 teachers. At each of the PhysTEC sites around the United States, science faculty, education faculty, and a full-time teacher-in-residence (TIR) work together to implement local teaching reforms that emphasize interactive engagement and a student-centered approach to learning science.  At Towson, the PhysTEC project team consists of Dr. Cody Sandifer and Dr. Laura Lising, two full-time science education faculty in the Department of Physics, Astronomy, and Geosciences, and a full-time elementary TIR.  The 2004-2005 TIR was Ms. Lisa Tirocchi, a Baltimore County elementary teacher.

Towson University


Towson University, a member of the University System of Maryland, is the second largest university in the state.  Towson graduates more preservice elementary teachers than any other Maryland school:  approximately 200 per year.  As a result, the education faculty at Towson -- the majority of which reside in content departments rather than education departments -- focus primarily on elementary-level science teaching.

Science in Towson’s Elementary Education Program

Before being officially admitted into the elementary education program, pre-elementary undergraduates at Towson are required to take an introductory physical science course, Physical Science I (PHSC 101).  In this course, students learn basic concepts of physical science through guided inquiry.

Immediately before the student teaching semesters, elementary education majors at Towson are required to complete a "math and science” semester, which is a semester solely dedicated to content and methods related to math/science instruction.  The Department of Physics, Astronomy, and Geosciences offers two courses during this math/science semester: Earth-Space Science (PHSC 303), which is an inquiry-focused content/methods course, and Teaching Science in the Elementary School (SCIE 376), which is the elementary science field experience.  Student cohorts are enrolled in these two courses concurrently.

SCIE 376:  Teaching Science in the Elementary School

The field experience course (SCIE 376), which is the central focus of our PhysTEC project, is perhaps the most important science course in Towson’s elementary education program.  Recent surveys have shown that approximately 25% of Towson’s elementary student teachers do not teach any science during their student teaching semesters, and that only 35-40% of Towson’s elementary student teachers teach science frequently.  This means that SCIE 376 may be the last real opportunity for many elementary education majors to improve their science teaching skills and their understanding of educational theory in an authentic classroom setting.

In terms of general course structure, there are 6-7 sections of SCIE 376 offered each semester; each section meets once per week for four hours at a nearby elementary school.  The course is structured to help preservice elementary teachers (whom we refer to as “interns”) learn and practice methods of science teaching and engage in self-reflection and improvement. Course activities include an hour of teaching time with the elementary children, coaching from the classroom mentor teacher, lesson planning under the supervision of the course instructor, and methods/content discussions and activities.

The Need for Course Improvement

Towson’s elementary education program is meant to provide a coherent experience for the many preservice teachers who enroll in our science courses every year.  While this coherence had been partly achieved by the focus on inquiry in both PHSC 101 and PHSC 303, it was not clear at the project’s start whether SCIE 376 was also in alignment with the program’s overarching focus on inquiry-based science teaching.  A critical issue was that, at the beginning of the project, it was unclear as to whether the interns’ science lessons in the elementary schools were inquiry-based, or were instead more traditional types of science lessons.

Beyond issues of programmatic coherence, there was also the issue that instructor and student complaints about SCIE 376 had been steadily increasing in the semesters prior to the grant.  Follow-up discussions with instructors and interns revealed that the different sections of the course were no longer uniform (in terms the number of science lessons taught per intern, the number of interns per classroom, and feedback on the interns’ science teaching), and also that there was a general lack of communication about the goals, structure, and logistics of the course.   For example, in some sections of the course, there were 4-6 preservice interns per elementary classroom, with each intern in charge of teaching science to her own small group of elementary students; the teaching structure in these sections guaranteed that each intern taught every week, which was the desired outcome.  In other sections, interns from a classroom group would take turns teaching science to the entire class, which meant that these interns would teach only 3 or 4 times per semester.

Faced with an array of different problems, the primary focus of Towson’s PhysTEC project became clear:  to improve the elementary field experience course.  In this case, "course improvement" was to be measured by the degree to which the different sections of the course became more uniformly aligned with course goals, and also by the extent to which the undergraduate interns increased the amount and quality of inquiry in their elementary science lessons at the field experience school sites.

The Role of the Teacher-in-Residence


Teacher-in-residence (TIR) Lisa Tirocchi was responsible for key project activities at Towson: she made weekly visits to field experience sites, served as liaison for the sites and the PhysTEC team, and also served as a resource for the SCIE 376 course instructors, interns, and mentors teachers.  In addition, Ms. Tirocchi participated in many other project activities, all of which were collaborative efforts between Ms. Tirocchi and the science education faculty members; these activities included weekly project meetings, planning and implementing instructor and mentor teacher workshops, developing and administering surveys and teaching observation protocols, data collation and analysis, recruiting and retaining field experience sites, and planning and organizing a curriculum resource folder for the field experience course instructors.  In each area of grant activity, Ms. Tirocchi was able to draw on her general teaching expertise, her practical classroom experience, her understanding of inquiry-based science instruction, and her knowledge of the Baltimore County school system to guide and inform the project’s efforts.


Project Activity: Course Improvement


After becoming aware of the problems associated with SCIE 376, the project team engaged in a number of activities to improve the many different sections of the course, including the re-establishment of clear course goals (Summer 2004), the teaching of certain course sections by the project faculty (Fall 2004, Spring 2005), mentor teacher workshops (August 2004, December 2004), and a course instructor meeting (December 2004).  The project team chose to spend a significant amount of effort on workshops and meetings due to the fact that Towson University offers as many as 7 sections of SCIE 376 offered each semester – many of which are taught by part-time instructors; consequently, any reforms related to SCIE 376 involve strong coordination between the multiple course sections, and new training for part-time instructors and mentor teachers.

Our Definition of Inquiry

The focus of the science component of Towson’s elementary education program is the notion of inquiry -- the idea that students should learn science by engaging in the process of science themselves.  To further clarify what is meant by inquiry-based science instruction, our PhysTEC team adopted the approach taken by the National Science Education Standards (1996), which defines inquiry learning and teaching through a series of “emphasis” summaries that contrast inquiry-based teaching with more traditional teaching methods.  Samples from the NSES Science Teaching and Science Content emphasis summaries (see pp. 52 and 113) are shown in Table 1
Table 1

Emphases in Inquiry-Based Science Instruction, as Defined by the NSES


Less Emphasis Should be Placed on:


More Emphasis Should be Placed on:


Verifying science content


Investigating and analyze science content


Getting an answer


Using evidence to develop or revise an explanation


Providing answers to questions


Communicating science explanations


Rigidly following curriculum


Selecting and adapting curriculum


Focusing on acquisition of information


Focusing on understanding and use of scientific ideas and inquiry processes


Lecture, text, and demonstration


Guiding students in active and extensive scientific inquiry


Asking for recitation of acquired knowledge


Providing opportunities for discussion and debate


Establishing SCIE 376 Course Goals

Having clarified our definition of inquiry, our next task was to create an updated list of course goals and share these goals with the SCIE 376 mentor teachers, university instructors, and interns:

  • Interns will understand and apply inquiry-focused theories of science teaching and learning
  • Interns will become exposed to local, state, and national content and teaching standards
  • Interns will observe their mentor teacher infrequently (0-2 times)
  • Interns will teach science as often as possible (9+ times for each intern)
  • The interns’ science units/lessons will generally consist of modified versions of the official school units/lessons, with all modifications being driven by the course’s focus on inquiry
  • Interns will receive in-depth feedback on their teaching from their mentor teachers and university instructors
  • Interns will engage in self-reflection on their teaching and make steps toward improvement


These goals were used to guide every aspect of the project’s efforts to improve SCIE 376.

Mentor Teacher Workshops


The goals of the mentor teacher workshops were:  to help the mentors develop a better understanding of inquiry and the scientific process; to clarify for the mentors the roles and responsibilities of the university instructors and mentor teachers; and to hold open discussions about course goals, course logistics, providing post-teaching feedback, and other issues of concern. An important point is that many of the workshop topics were introduced in direct response to questions, concerns, and ideas that had been shared by the mentor teachers.  Sixteen mentor teachers attended the summer workshop, and five teachers attended the winter workshop.

Specifically, the half-day mentor teacher workshops included the following content/activities:

  • An overview of the elementary education program at Towson
  • The goals and structure of the course
  •  A sample of a semester-long course timeline
  • A description of the roles/expectations of the university instructors and mentor teachers
  • A demonstration of a methods activity, in which mentor teachers participated in the analysis and modification of different science lessons
  • Open discussions about the different aspects of the course

Workshop comments and a comparison of pre/post workshop surveys indicated that the workshops were successful at communicating the course goals, answering the mentor teachers’ questions, and establishing contacts between Towson University and the local school systems.

Instructor Meeting


In December, just before the spring semester, the project team held a meeting for course instructors.  The goals of the meeting were: to help the instructors develop a better understanding of inquiry and the scientific process; to increase communication between the PhysTEC team and the instructors; to establish a team atmosphere for course improvement; to solicit more input about course needs; and to hold open discussions about course goals, course logistics, and other issues of concern.  The meeting was attended by one full-time instructor and three part-time instructors.

Specifically, the two-hour meeting included the following content/activities:

  • Our reasons for updating the course goals, including the emphasis on inquiry in the National Science Education Standards (1996) and the lack of inquiry observed in the interns’ science lessons in Fall 2004
  • An overview of the course goals, with particular emphasis on the newly established inquiry goals, and the goal of helping the interns modify curriculum to make it more inquiry-based