Physics – the study of matter and energy – tackles fundamental questions involving the very essence of how our universe works.

But if students need another reason for studying the subject in high school, here is one: physics is nearly always a prerequisite to college degrees in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

But traditionally, not all students have studied physics. Often it is expected that students will study it as juniors or even seniors in high school, and many students never take the course. According to the American Association of Physics Teachers, only about 30 percent of American students ever study physics.

One obstacle to having more students take physics is the scarcity of physics teachers.

It’s no secret that high schools have long had a hard time finding physics teachers. “The United States has a severe, long-term shortage of qualified physics teachers,” reports the Physics Teacher Education Coalition. “School districts consistently rank physics as the highest need area among all academic disciplines with regard to teacher shortages.”

In fact, in 2013, the National Task Force on Teacher Education reported that “the need for qualified physics teachers is greater now than at any previous time in U.S. history.”

That holds true in New Jersey. The colleges and universities of education in New Jersey graduate less than ten physics teachers a year, according to Dr. Rosemary Knab, director of research and operations for the Center of Teaching and Learning. That’s actually better than other states. In 2009, the governor of Georgia noted in a speech that his state’s colleges and universities had only graduated one certified physics teacher that year.

But an innovative New Jersey program has made significant progress in alleviating the physics teacher shortage. The program has also developed a physics course that is increasing the number of students who take high school physics, as well as boosting the numbers of students taking Physics AP B, an advanced placement course in physics.

The program is from the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), which was created by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) in 2006. CTL was developed as an independent non-profit organization to developed professional development training for teachers.

It started, as many education innovations do, as the brainchild of a remarkable individual teacher, Dr. Robert Goodman, New Jersey’s Teacher of the Year in 2005-2006.

Before becoming a teacher, Goodman, who graduated from MIT with a degree in physics, designed audio equipment and ran several companies, including Harman Kardon, JBL Consumer Products and Onkyo International Operation. After retiring from his corporate career and taking time off, he decided to teach. He earned a masters degree in education, and in 1999, he began teaching at Bergen County Technical Schools in Teterboro.

There he developed a unique physics course for freshmen.

He developed that course out of necessity. When Goodman’s tenure at the school began, he expected to teach 16 freshman pre-engineering students. He had been told that all completed algebra in middle school, but he found that only three of the students actually had done so. “This created a gap, since students were scheduled to take geometry, not algebra I,” says Goodman. “If I didn’t teach them algebra, who would?” So he developed a course that would teach the math, as well as the science. With the two-hour block of time he had with the students each day, he devoted 40 minutes to teaching algebra I, 40 minutes to teaching an algebra-based physics, and 40 minutes to teaching engineering topics.

In designing the algebra-based physics coursework, Goodman took an unusual approach. He estimated that about 80 percent of the material taught in AP Physics B required knowledge of algebra, not trigonometry. So he sliced the curriculum in an unusual way: by the level of math required. The material that required algebra is taught to the freshmen; the course content that requires the higher level of math is saved for second, advanced placement physics class that students take later.

That approach allowed freshmen to simultaneously take physics and algebra, an arrangement that allows the work done in each discipline to reinforce the other.

At Bergen County Technical Schools, Goodman’s course was an unmistakable success. “Mathematics became visible to students and science made sense, and their enjoyment in math and science grew rapidly.” he says.

More students at the school took physics, more finished AP Physics and took the exam, and more did well on the exam. Students in other majors, like culinary, fashion, and auto, petitioned the administration to be allowed to take algebra-based physics in ninth grade. Within a few years of starting the course, all students were taking physics in their freshman year and many went on to take AP Physics.

The trigonometry-based physics work is in an additional, elective course that students take later. By the end of the second physics course, students have mastered the full AP Physics B content, and are prepared to take the AP exam. But by reserving the use of trigonometry to the advanced elective course, the path for physics has been opened to all students.

By 2012, Bergen County Technical School had a higher percentage of students taking and passing the AP Physics B exam than any other school in the state.

The course wasn’t just innovative for the fact that it taught physics to high school freshmen. Goodman designed the course so it would provide a welcoming introduction to the science. The course takes a collaborative, interactive approach where students are seated at round tables helping each other solve problems.

Disseminating the Program

Goodman’s success attracted attention, particularly after he became the state’s Teacher of the Year. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the program.

Around the same time, NJEA formed the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and decided to build on Goodman’s work to encourage STEM. “NJEA created CTL with private donations to do professional development for teachers,” explains Dr. Rosemary Knab. “We decided to focus on STEM because we felt it was a critical area for education and for the nation.”

Goodman was invited to join the board, and in 2009 became a full time employee. In 2011 Goodman became executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning.

He worked to make the course easy to implement by other teachers. “When I was the state Teacher of the Year, I was given a SMART Board and student polling devices, and I realized I could use this technology to easily share the content and pedagogy of this course,” he says.

The technology also made it possible to incorporate interactive white board files that quiz students in real time with automated polling devices. A teacher can teach a concept, then quickly assess whether students understand it before either offering more instruction or moving on to another concept.

Goodman and CTL developed PSI (Progressive Science Initiative) Physics course and made all course materials available free online. Today there are some 72,000 slides, and some 3500 Word documents in the curriculum available for teachers. The instructional material includes everything a teacher needs, including presentations, class and homework, labs and student assessments. It is designed to work best with a SMART board, but can be used without one.

About 150 schools in New Jersey now use the program. Districts using it include Newark, Paterson, Jersey City, Trenton, and Ocean City.

As more districts have adopted it, the results have continued to be striking. Six of the top 12 high schools in the state for AP Physics B participation are schools in which PSI is used.

And the PSI schools serve more students who are economically disadvantaged or are students of color. Among the PSI schools in the top 12, more than 60 percent of the students are black or Hispanic and are economically disadvantaged, as compared to less than 8 percent in the non-PSI schools in the top 12.

Creating Physics Teachers

The PSI initiative also showed how to fulfill the need for physics teachers.

CTL worked with the New Jersey Department of Education to develop a summer program that trains existing science teachers to begin teaching the PSI algebra-based physics course. The teachers continue their training over the course of the next year. After passing the Praxis exam in physics and general science, participating teachers become certified by the state to teach physics. They also earn 30 credits from Kean University, which can be applied to a masters degree. The CTL course for teachers was made possible after a state law was adopted authorizing alternative methods of certifying new physics and chemistry teachers.

By some measures CTL has become the leading producer of physics teachers in the United States.

A recent study, Transforming the Preparation of Physics Teachers: A Call to Action – A Report by the Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics, noted that in 2012, the largest average annual number of graduating physics teachers in any single U.S. college or university was 14. According to the study, the vast majority of programs have fewer than two graduates per year and the most common number of graduates is zero. In 2012, CTL’s Progressive Science Initiative Endorsement Program graduated 22 physics teachers; the program has graduated an average of 24 physics teachers every year since 2010.

The CTL initiative has expanded into other areas, going on to develop PSI K-12 Science Courses, as well as the Progressive Math Initiative (PMI) K-12 Common Core Math Courses.

PSI has spread to other state and even to other countries. CTL has worked directly with educators in Colorado, Utah and Vermont, as well as in Argentina and Gambia in West Africa. (The Gambia project is supported by the World Bank and the Peace Corps.)

But many more teachers and students are using the materials online, without direct assistance from CTL. The CTL website has seen rapid growth in website visitors, as students and teachers access the materials. More than 6,100 teachers have registered to gain access to student assessment materials and monthly page views are running at about 500,000 per month – an annual pace of about five million per year.

While the growth in students studying PSI physics is impressive, Goodman believes it’s only a beginning. “The first thing I want school board members to know is that all kids need to take physics,” he says. “If they are not doing that, they are not giving kids a shot at the STEM jobs. And if kids learn physics at the same time they are learning algebra it increases their understanding and their test scores in both the math and the science.”

Goodman has another message for school districts. “A significant problem has always been that there are not enough physics teachers, but in New Jersey that’s not a problem anymore,” he says. “If districts work with us, they can have as many physics teachers as they want.”