A 2016 framework introduced to expose all California high school students to biology, earth and space science, chemistry, and physics is in the process of being implemented — but a recent report in EdSource identifies a problem: There may not be enough qualified physics teachers to go around.

It’s a sentiment that’s been echoed by other educators, including PhysTEC, a coalition between the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers. When you visit the organization’s website, “Physics teacher shortage” is listed as the first clickable item on its navigation menu.

“The United States has a severe, long-term shortage of qualified physics teachers,” PhysTEC says online.

“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.'”

The trend isn’t exclusive to the U.S. — a January 2019 report by the Guardian suggests that the number of U.K. physics teacher trainees in 2018 was just 47 per cent of the number requested.

Having a formal physics education isn’t required for many high schools, but some educators say students tend to perform better when provided with a teacher who has a formal background in the subject they are teaching (File photo: Pixabay).

In Australia, fewer than one in four high school students have a qualified math teacher, according to a May 2019 report by the Sydney Morning Herald.

Majority of U.S. physics teachers aren’t formally trained

There are differing statistics on the number of physics teachers that have a formal background in the subject. A 2012 study by the American Institute of Physics suggests that only about 35 per cent of high school physics teachers have a degree in physics or physics education.

In May 2019, a study by Ohio State University cited data from the National Science Foundation, estimating that 47 per cent of U.S. physics teachers are formally educated on the subject.

While having a physics degree is not a pre-requisite to be a physics teacher in many jurisdictions, PhysTEC says students tend to be more successful in all STEM subjects when they have a teacher who has a least a bachelor’s degree in the subject they are teaching.

Hope for the future

A May 2019 study published by researchers at Ohio State University suggests the education gap can be bridged through professional development programs aimed at teachers, even those with no prior physics training.

The study followed two groups of advanced-placement science teachers through three years of development aimed at improving the teachers’ understanding of physics concepts. The professional development program was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Researchers found the teachers who took the courses were “more likely to use conceptual learning techniques and the Socratic method to teach their students — a method driven by inquiry-based teaching and learning, along with hands-on labs to help students see the real-world applications of the theories they learned,” according to an Ohio State University press release.

“The teachers who did not complete the training … continued to fall back on lectures and standardized labs.”

Lead author Justina Ogodo, a postdoctoral researcher at The Ohio State University’s Department of Teaching and Learning, said the findings show that increasing training for teachers will likely lead to better outcomes for students and could contribute to better job satisfaction for teachers.

Having qualified STEM-subject teachers will become increasingly important in the years to come, with shifts in the business sector already hinting that the majority of future jobs will require at least some STEM training.

Read the full paper here.