ASU alleviates physics-teacher shortage, strengthens STEM pathway

November 6, 2015

Seventy high school physics and chemistry teachers from around the world took seven graduate-level courses at Arizona State University over the summer to enhance their teaching capabilities. 

The graduate-level courses, including modeling instruction workshops, take a hands-on approach to instruction, helping teachers integrate physics or chemistry with technology, engineering and math to teach students how to design experiments, analyze data and defend conclusions. Teachers in an ASU Modeling Workshop collaborate to build a scientific model from their lab investigation data. Photo courtesy of Jane Jackson, Arizona State University. Download Full Image

Teachers can implement these techniques to overcome traditional classroom hurdles, such as student passivity.

“I can already tell the difference my first day back,” said Isabel Pak, a chemistry teacher at Chandler High School. 

The Department of Physics modeling instruction program in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the only one of its kind in Arizona, encourages lifelong learning for teachers and students. Nearly 1,000 teachers have taken the workshops, which directly benefit 100,000 students annually in school districts across the state.

Beyond improving student engagement, the program addresses the shortage of physics teachers in Arizona.

Seventy-five percent of the 180 physics teachers in Phoenix don’t hold a physics degree. Often, schools are forced to retrain teachers from other subject areas to teach physics, or go without.  

The shortage of high school physics courses has a direct impact on the number of students likely to pursue science, technology, engineering and math majors in college. According to research at the University of South Florida, Harvard and the TIMSS Center at Boston College, physics is the chief pathway to STEM majors and careers.

Students who receive hands-on instruction in high school are three times more likely to earn a STEM degree, research from the University of South Florida and the TIMSS Center shows.

It’s a challenge that Jane Jackson, the program’s co-director, sees as the essential mission of the program.

“The ASU modeling instruction program is crucial. Arizona’s economic health depends on a strong K-12 education that includes robust physics courses,” Jackson said. “Physics is STEM. Critical and creative thinking are essential to meet our looming 21st-century challenges.”

Since 2003, the modeling instruction program has helped 70 teachers earn master’s degrees in natural sciences. 

Two major donors, Boeing and Salt River Project, provide partial tuition scholarships and programmatic support to help make it affordable for teachers to advance their education and improve their teaching capabilities.

For many of these teachers, the ASU modeling instruction program is a lifeline for their careers.

“I have been teaching physics and mathematics now for over 20 years, and was fortunate to be trained in modeling instruction as a pre-service teacher in 1993,” said Kelli Gamez Warble, a teacher-in-residence in the Department of Physics at ASU. “If not for modeling pedagogy and its supportive community of instructors, I would likely have left teaching within my first five years.”

Learn more about the ASU modeling instruction program at

Amanda Stoneman

Copywriter, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

ASU research on group behavior could improve human well-being, survival

November 10, 2015

Humans have depended on each other for thousands of years — gathering food, building shelters and fending off enemies. And even though cooperation has been around a long time, human group behavior is still poorly understood. Yet a richer understanding of how group behavior emerges from the actions of individuals, and how our social networks influence our decisions, is an important step in advancing future human endeavors.

Scientists from Arizona State University are beginning a new, four-year research project to study group decision-making. This research can be applied to a number of areas, such as military decision-making and how groups make decisions that affect drug abuse and obesity. With a $1.9 million grant from National Institutes of Health, School of Life Sciences professor Brian Smith and his research team will examine group behavior using bees and mathematical simulations. Professor Jürgen Gadau, also with the school, as well as two faculty members from University of California, San Diego, will serve as co-investigators. Honey bees share many behavioral qualities with humans, such as their individuality in experience and genetic predispositions toward certain tasks. In addition, they can act on their own without being told exactly what to do.

According to Smith, honey bees provide an ideal model for analysis. Like humans, bees aren’t all identical and many differ in experience or genetic predispositions toward certain tasks. In addition, honey bees share the human capability of acting without anyone telling them exactly what to do, but they still act in a way that coordinates group activities.

“There’s no one bee in command telling the other bees anything,” Smith said. “They just know how to do what they need to by looking at the information they get from each other and the information they experience.”

Those traits will help Smith’s research team analyze how leaderless groups cooperate to reach a common goal. Once that is understood, Smith said the data may show ways to improve how humans work together to ensure mutual well-being and survival.

“Humanity is good at making group decisions without a leader, but we want to understand what the process is,” Smith said. “Social networks can influence people in a lot of ways — from what they eat to how much they exercise. What this is all about is finding out how those groups function.”

As part of the experiment, the scientists will give colonies of bees different problems to overcome as a group. One example Smith gave was tasking bees with gathering food from multiple sources, which are spaced out at a variety of intervals.

By observing how the bees decide to divide up the labor — how many bees scout for new sources and how many gather food from sources they already know about — the team can construct a simulation to model that behavior.

The models will then provide new data, which will give Smith and his team guidance about what experiments to conduct next. Eventually, the back-and-forth between the model and experimentation will identify a larger picture that hopefully explains how a group of individuals can make decisions that lead to good health and continued survival.

Jason Krell

Communication and events coordinator, Center for Evolution and Medicine