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An interview with the 2022 PhysTEC Teacher of the Year.
By Taryn MacKinney | August 8, 2022
Do you remember your high school physics teacher?
Danielle Buggé’s students certainly do. Dr. Buggé—a physics teacher at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South in New Jersey—has taught for 13 years, and her teaching approach is rooted in research on how kids learn best.
“We want students to learn physics the way physicists do,” she says.
Dr. Buggé has been named the 2022 National PhysTEC Teacher of the Year, an award that recognizes outstanding physics educators. The Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC)—an initiative of APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers—seeks to address a shortage of qualified physics teachers in the US. The Teacher of the Year receives funding to attend two conferences focused on physics education and a $1,000 grant for classroom materials.
APS News spoke with Dr. Buggé about her background, teaching approach, and advice for aspiring teachers. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Which came first, your interest in physics or your interest in teaching?
Physics. I studied physics and studio art in college, which were interests I had in high school.
I had a high school physics teacher that inspired me. I had fun in her class, and she made it accessible for us. It was challenging; I had to keep asking questions. I got to know my classmates well, too, because we had to work together to learn.
What got you into teaching from there?
My family and friends encouraged me. They’d say, “Listen, you've been doing this throughout your life—working with younger students, mentoring. You’d make a very good teacher.” So I attended Rutgers University for my Master’s in Education and physics teacher certification.
In your classroom, you use a teaching approach called the Investigative Science Learning Environment, right?
Yes—ISLE, for short.
What is ISLE?
ISLE is a philosophy of learning and teaching where the things students do in the classroom mirror what physicists do when they do physics. I learned about ISLE from Eugenia Etkina, my mentor at Rutgers, who pioneered the approach. We want students to learn physics the way physicists do, and feel good about themselves in the process. They're not just learning content—they're developing content.
We start out with observational experiments, and then the students, in teams, come up with explanations for what they saw. They ask themselves, “What’s going on? What might explain this?”
But we don’t stop there. The students then design and perform experiments to test their explanations. It’s often tough for students when their predictions don’t match the outcomes of the experiments. They think something's wrong. That’s when we say, “No, no, no—it's okay that they don’t match! That's part of the process.” They’re developing the ability to think like scientists, and to use the processes that scientists use every day in the real world. And they’re doing it with their peers.
You’re aiming for a collaborative environment?
Yes. It's not you against me—we're working on this together. That's what happens in science, right? And because we encourage our students to revise their ideas, they experience productive failure. Physicists don't have all the answers the first time, so we shouldn't expect that of students.
It sounds like having students learn to cope with frustration and failure is a part of the process.
Absolutely. We want them to ask, “How can I figure things out? Who am I as a learner?” We’re giving them space to develop a growth mindset, which will benefit them in the future.
What have you learned from your own research on ISLE?
So, we surveyed alumni who had learned physics in ISLE classrooms about what they remembered and learned from the courses. We received more than 200 responses from students going back 10 years.
Many of them remembered physics content. But many also talked about being in a space where they could fail productively, without ramifications—about having a safe space to learn. And many alumni, whether in STEM or non-STEM fields, reported that they’d been able to transfer specific skills to their later studies and careers, like critical thinking, metacognition, and collaboration.
Can you think of students whose experiences in your classroom shaped what they did after high school?
Yes, several. One of my students is pursuing a PhD in physics. He says it's completely my fault. (laughs) He came into my class unsure of himself, and we figured out how he learns and what excites him. He ended up being a lab assistant in my course. Now he’s doing research on quantum optics, and he comes back every year to speak to my current students about physics.
Have any of your students gone into education?
Yes. One of these students said, about halfway through his junior year, that he wanted to be a physics teacher. He just finished his sophomore year in college. One of his professors emailed me and said, “I've heard all about you.” (laughs)
That’s a big deal, particularly given that the US has an acute shortage of high school physics teachers. The need for teachers in physics is greater than for nearly any other subject. In your view, what will help teachers overcome these challenges?
Having a support network is invaluable. If we want to retain teachers, they need to feel supported in the profession. That was important throughout my teacher prep program and as a new teacher—we planned lessons, gave feedback, and grew together.
If you don't have a community—if there's nobody to talk to—it's difficult. If you're feeling isolated, you're not going to challenge yourself or your students.
If a high school or college student were reading this, and they were thinking about becoming a teacher, what would you say to them?
If you’re a high school student, I’d suggest spending time in classrooms. Ask your teachers, “Can I shadow you during my study hall? Can I help with lessons?”
For college students, I'd suggest talking to people in the education department. There's still a stigma about STEM in education, and you need to find the mentors who will support you. And you need to find like-minded students who want to major in education, even if it’s not STEM. That way, you’ll be able to form a community where you're able to grow together.
So, short and sweet—I’d say go for it.
To learn more about PhysTEC, visit phystec.org.
Taryn MacKinney is the Editor of APS News.
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Editor: Taryn MacKinney