Perimeter Institute Teacher Network boosts high school physics across Canada

In only its second year, the Network has already reached thousands of students and equipped teachers with resources and confidence to teach complex concepts in modern physics.

Roberta Tevlin is a high school physics teacher at Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute in Toronto. She also spends about 25 hours a month – often in the evening and on weekends – working on one of PI’s rapidly growing outreach initiatives, the Teacher Network, where she describes her role of Network Coordinator as that of a “roving connector” between PI’s home base and high school physics teachers.

It is a relationship that’s proved serendipitous for both Tevlin and PI since the former first attended a 2005 EinsteinPlus workshop. “My mind was completely upended and I’ve become a fanatic about getting the ideas of modern physics out there in the high schools,” explains Tevlin. She returned to EinsteinPlus as a teacher facilitator the next year and distinguished herself as the obvious candidate to help pilot a Teacher Network initiative during the 2008-2009 school year. Her abiding passion for physics was recognized by the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) with the 2010 CAP Award for Excellence in Teaching High School/CEGEP Physics - Ontario.

Now in its second year, the PI Teacher Network is flourishing. According to PI’s Julie Taylor, who stepped up to the role of Network Project Manager this past September, the goal of the Network is to reach far more students with the Institute’s award-winning outreach content by getting the resources into the hands of more physics educators than the department could on its own. “We have all these great resources and a lot of people know about them, but we just don’t have the manpower to be able to send PI people out all across Canada, so that’s where the Network becomes crucial,” Taylor explains.

To populate the Network, PI identifies enthusiastic physics teachers who have attend EinsteinPlus workshops and invites them to join the Network, with the expectation that they will administer workshops to fellow educators in their home region, as well as collaborate with PI Outreach on the development of new resources, and even participate in textbook writing and science curricula initiatives in their home provinces. “It’s an idea of ‘Training the Trainers’,” says Taylor. “Teachers who hear about a resource from another teacher are more likely to use it because they know that it’s been tested in the classroom.”

For 2009-2010, the Network’s goal is to reach 1,000 teachers, mainly across Canada, by holding 40 workshops with 25-30 educators in each remote workshop. If each teacher is assumed to then reach 30 students, 30,000 students will gain access to PI resources within a year. And these projections are conservative according to Tevlin, who estimates that many of these teachers are actually teaching about 100 students per year.

With the first semester having just finished at most Canadian schools, Taylor – who oversees the Network – is optimistic that the program is on track. As of January, Network teacher associates had reached 629 physics teachers through 23 workshops, and another 20 were planned for the spring, she confirmed.

While final numbers for this year won’t be known until July, in some ways the impact is already being seen – particularly in Ontario, where 14 of the Network’s 45 teacher associates are based. Tevlin credits PI as a major reason Ontario boasts what she calls “the best physics curriculum in Canada,” precisely because it has retained an interest in the type of modern physics PI’s resources seek to make accessible.

“From the surveys of the workshops that we’ve done, it looks like at least half of the physics teachers teaching senior physics do not have a physics degree, so there’s no wonder that these people are feeling uncomfortable about teaching relativity and quantum physics,” explains Tevlin. And no wonder, perhaps, that the province of Ontario was ready to remove modern physics entirely in a recent revamping of the science curriculum. That is, until teachers started pushing back.

“Perimeter had been in there for a couple of years and teachers had had the chance to learn some of this [modern physics] stuff, and there was this huge swell of protest from physics teachers,” Tevlin explains. “I was involved in the review of this curriculum document and I thought they were going to just make us rubber-stamp it, but everyone was saying, ‘This is ridiculous!’ And they went and put it back in.”

“So Ontario has got the modern physics and I think a lot of that is because Perimeter is there already reaching out to the teachers,” she added. “It’s really cooking, and I’d like to see that happen across Canada.”

Indeed, better coverage across Canada – particularly in BC, Quebec, northern regions and underserviced communities – is one of the Teacher Network’s main goals moving forward, as well as to continue equipping Network members with resources beyond the present offerings of “The Mystery of Dark Matter,” “The Challenge of Quantum Reality,” and “Measuring Planck’s Constant”.

About Perimeter Institute

Perimeter Institute is the world’s largest research hub devoted to theoretical physics. The independent Institute was founded in 1999 to foster breakthroughs in the fundamental understanding of our universe, from the smallest particles to the entire cosmos. Research at Perimeter is motivated by the understanding that fundamental science advances human knowledge and catalyzes innovation, and that today’s theoretical physics is tomorrow’s technology. Located in the Region of Waterloo, the not-for-profit Institute is a unique public-private endeavour, including the Governments of Ontario and Canada, that enables cutting-edge research, trains the next generation of scientific pioneers, and shares the power of physics through award-winning educational outreach and public engagement.

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