Secondary-school physics teachers from throughout the Inland Empire participated in a two-week workshop at UC Riverside this summer in an ambitious effort to help increase the number of physicists and engineers in California.

The Summer Physics Academy for High School Teachers was held from July 28 to Aug. 8. Each day, seven teachers from Inland Empire schools attended morning lectures,and took part in afternoon laboratory exercises designed to illustrate the concepts taught in the lectures. The goal was to increase their students’ interest in physics.

“Only 22 percent of all California high school graduates have taken physics,” said Harry Tom, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, “and, of course, high school physics is the gateway to majoring in physics or engineering in college. Here in the Inland Empire, the percentage is only 12 percent.”

Tom said he is concerned, not only about the number of physics and engineering majors at UCR, but for the future of the country.

“Engineers and physicists are essential to the nation’s security and economic future,” he said. “Yet we are not producing as many new physicists or engineers as we should.”

The department has a five-year plan to achieve two very specific goals: bring the Inland Empire’s high schools up to the state average of physics-class enrollment; and double the number of physics majors at UCR.

To achieve these goals, and to improve physics instruction in the schools, the department brought a small class of physics teachers together for its intensive workshop, not only to learn the most current research results about heat, electricity, optics, classical mechanics, and particle physics, but also to learn the best ways of teaching the concepts.

Teachers were paid a stipend of $100 per day for the duration of the workshop. Each also received an optics lab kit that would serve 32 students and a set of “clickers”— handheld devices that let instructors see how well their students understand concepts.

“Demonstrations are the heart of teaching physics, as they determine what students remember regarding a particular phenomenon,” said Leonid Pryadko, associate professor of physics and astronomy, who was in charge of the seminar’s day-to-day operation. “Many phenomena can be illustrated nicely on a limited budget, with just a few minutes’ preparation time required from the teacher. These are the kinds of demos that we discuss with the teachers in the afternoon sessions. We have lively discussions with excellent suggestions on how to make the presentations even better.”

Each of the participating teachers will have a physics and astronomy faculty member assigned to him or her for the 2008-09 school year to keep in touch, get feedback, and maintain the relationship that was built during the workshop.

The teachers are crucial to the success of the five-year plan, since they will be helping to mold the following year’s seminar, which will be for middle-school teachers, said Tom.

“It has been a very enlightening experience for me to get a better understanding of the challenges that the teachers face,” said Roland Kawakami, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy who supervised the demo labs. “On the last day of the academy, we had an organized discussion with all the participants to [see how we can] help the teachers in the future to educate their students in physics. These teachers will help define a road map for our future interactions with the secondary schools in the region.”

Support for the seminar was provided by the Alpha Center, the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, and the Department of Physics and Astronomy. The clickers were donated by Hyper-Interactive Teaching Technology LLC and the optics kit by Edmunds Optics.