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Science Instructors Learn Physics Teaching Via Telephone Course

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Once every two weeks or so, Roy Unruh places a conference call to five science teachers in southern Iowa. The teachers, all of whom work in small, rural systems, have already received written physics lessons from Mr. Unruh, a college teacher who is one of 10 people on the task force that writes the lessons.

But the teleconference, conducted via speakerphones, gives the teachers a chance to hear Mr. Unruh elucidate the lessons and explain not only the principles of physics and mathematics but also how to present the material in ways the students will understand.

The teachers are participating in an experimental program that may be one of the first to exploit Alexander Graham Bell's invention as a tool to compensate for the acute shortage of science teachers. Iowa, like other states, has far fewer qualified physics teachers than it needs; to offer physics at all, many districts must use a teacher whose knowledge of physics is, Mr. Unruh says, "rather marginal."

The problem is especially serious in rural areas, which are less likely to be able to offer salaries that would retain highly qualified physics teachers. Yet those teachers who do stay (and who may have weak backgrounds in physics) are often strongly committed both to teaching and to living in rural communities, according to Iowa officials.

Hence, the Iowa program is concentrating on small, rural school systems, according to George Magrane, education consultant in the Southern Prairie Education Agency.

"That's what we're trying to do--keep these teachers in the rural schools," he said. "Most of them are biology teachers. At each of the five schools, each teacher has five teaching assignments. They also drive buses and lead cheerleaders. They're tuned into the rural schools."

The teachers are "experienced, veteran teachers," he said, who are in many cases making between $12,000 and $14,000 per year. "They do everything for that money. We're trying to help them out in any way we can."

Characteristic in Other States

Iowa's situation is characteristic of that in other states, according to Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (nsta).

In national surveys now being analyzed by the nsta, "that pattern is emerging," Mr. Aldridge said.

"The teachers tend to be less well qualified," in rural areas, Mr. Aldridge said. "They can't hire a full-time physics teacher; they have to hire someone who can teach physics, chemistry, and other things.''

Mr. Aldridge said he was not aware of other school districts that were experimenting with conference-call science teaching, although some are considering the use of systems in which computers are linked by telephone lines.

Iowa's "telenet" program, which got underway this school year, was developed by the state education department's physics task force, chair- ed by Mr. Unruh, who is an associate professor of physics and science education at the University of Northern Iowa. The task force was given the assignment of thinking up ways to improve physics education, which had, according to Mr. Magrane, fallen into the same cycle that is worrying science educators elsewhere: Fewer high-school students are taking physics, which means that fewer are likely to study science in college, and that in turn shrinks the pool of candidates to become physics teachers.

The task-force members agreed, Mr. Magrane said, that there were other components to the problem besides that of underqualified teachers. One such component, he noted, was the materials used to teach physics, which he described as "fairly dry" textbooks that use few examples that students can relate to everyday life.

A second component was that of "delivery." If someone were to create better materials, how would they reach the teachers?

Decision Based On Cost

The decision to use telephones rather than more elaborate delivery systems, Mr. Magrane said, was essentially based on cost. "I thought of the cheapest way to go, and that was to try the speakerphone system,'' he said. "We call it our 'shoestring' program."

The program for the five schools cost $6,000 this year, and Mr. Magrane said the task force hopes to operate it for about $1,000 per school next year.

"Basically, we try to give them enough background in the content and the methodology so they have the tools to do the job," Mr. Unruh said. "We're providing the resources, and the teleconferencing allows us to be in communication with them."

Peggy Steffen, a science teacher at Fremont High School who is participating in the program, said that it has been useful to her and that the materials provided by the task force have been well received by students.

"I teach five different subjects, and that is one of the big problems of small schools," she said. "You teach such a wide variety of topics that it's very hard to keep up with knowledge."

In physics, Ms. Steffens said, she has taken only those courses necessary for certification--12 semester hours in Iowa. She has focused her subsequent coursework on biology. "In the other subjects, I just haven't gone back. A program like this new physics program is really helpful."

Ms. Steffens said that having Mr. Unruh's expertise to fall back on has made her more willing to tackle unfamiliar material. "I know that if I can't answer a question, I can ask him on the next teleconference, 'What was that about, anyway?"'

The students, she said, like lessons that teach them physics through everyday objects such as automobiles and motorcycles.

'High Visual Dimension'

Mr. Unruh said one of the task force's concerns was the need to cover visual, as well as written, information. "Scientific experimentation has a high visual dimension to it, and you have to communicate what you're doing pretty well in print in advance," he noted. Any program designed to use the telephone and written materials to communicate with teachers must take that into consideration, he suggested.

Mr. Unruh and others involved in the program caution that it is too soon to say whether they've succeeded in improving the teaching of physics.

"I can't declare it a success right now, but the teachers seem to think it helps," said Mr. Magrane.

Nevertheless, he added, the program has been helpful enough to warrant planning its expansion to about 45 schools next year, and possibly making it statewide later. There have been "rumors," according to Mr. Magrane, that the National Science Foundation might be interested in providing some money for the program.

Some involved in the program in Iowa find that a little ironic. "If we had money, we'd solve the problem some other way," one official said.

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