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By Leah Poffenberger
The 2020 PhysTEC conference, held in Denver last March, had the unique distinction of being the last in-person APS meeting. This year, the 2021 PhysTEC Conference went online, bringing together over 100 attendees from PhysTEC sites across the country. The two-day meeting, held on March 5 and 6, was packed with sessions on a variety of topics affecting physics teacher education, as well as opportunities for attendees to connect and share their own ideas and experiences.
PhysTEC, a partnership between APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), began in 2001, with a goal of addressing a critical shortage of qualified physics teachers in the United States. Over 300 institutions across the US have joined PhysTEC, displaying a dedication to promoting physics teacher preparedness. The PhysTEC conference represents an important opportunity to bring together representatives from PhysTEC sites to discuss the state of physics teacher education, learn about resources and techniques for improving education programs, and provide feedback on the state of the PhysTEC program.
“We were able to put together a really good program,” says Annelise Roti Roti, PhysTEC Coordinator. “Everyone who came to speak was nothing short of exceptional and really helped the whole conference be as good as it was.”
Highlights of the 2021 PhysTEC conference included two plenary panels—one on strategies for inclusive teaching and another on new online teaching strategies for physics education—the PhysTEC Teacher of the Year Award Presentation, and breakout sessions on a number of topics, from NSF funding opportunities to creating inclusive culture with learning assistants.
“Many people said how great [the conference] was and how much they stuck around for discussions, which is pretty remarkable for an online conference when everyone is tired of being online,” said David May, PhysTEC program manager. “People really seemed to like the lightning sessions—one was on successful strategies from PhysTEC sites and the other on [Get the Facts Out] recruiting resources. Each talk was five to seven minutes to share ideas.”
The most impactful session of the PhysTEC conference, which moved quite a few attendees to tears, was the presentation of the 2020 National Teacher of the Year award to Bouakham Sriri-Perez, from Duncan Polytechnical High School in Fresno, CA. In a brief, but emotion-filled talk, Sriri-Perez described her path, from spending her childhood in a refugee camp to becoming a decorated physics teacher. “What does this award mean [to me]? This is a win for teachers, for refugees and immigrants, and an opportunity to share my journey,” she said.
To facilitate the kinds of interactive discussions that might usually take place at a PhysTEC conference, most of the non-plenary sessions were designed as interactive workshops, making use of Zoom breakout rooms for small group discussions. A discussion room was also available in Gather.town for “talk-outs,” time set aside after sessions for attendees to gather and share their conference experiences. Table topic discussions, a new event from the 2020 PhysTEC conference that gave attendees a chance to sit down together and discuss specific topics from the conference, was also replicated in Gather.Town on the final day of the conference.
“For table talks, we provide a set of topics with a topic at each table…essentially, you get people in the room, and give them the topics to discuss with their peers,” said Roti Roti. “The goals are to provide a space for faculty to discuss the topic in their own context to get some really good ideas to take home. Goal number two is that, assuming folks take notes, we ask them to share those notes to improve the PhysTEC program.”
Although networking and other aspects of in-person meetings are still difficult to replicate in an online space, post-conference surveys indicate that the online PhysTEC conference was a hit.
“This is the best online conference I have attended—well organized, clear communication, transparent navigation,” said one attendee. “It's still not as much fun as an in-person conference, but it's the closest I've experienced. Very worthwhile, and I'm glad I came.”
For more about the PhysTEC program visit phystec.org.
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine