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U.Va. Education Grad Responds To Shortage Of Physics Teachers

May 16, 2005 -- U.Va. education student Heather Welch, who graduates on May 22, has some stellar ideas about how best to put her science education to work and drum up interest in the subject among American students. Her work has won her a selective Knowles Science Teaching Foundation Fellowship, worth about $50,000. 

Welch, an astronomy-physics major, said there are many ideas about why American students might be less interested in science careers these days, but she thinks the way science is taught often ignores the ways culture has changed and accounts for some of the decline. As a new teacher, she intends to use examples and problems that appeal to a diverse group of students, she said, and to employ instructional technology.

Welch, whose fellowship began last year, is one of three Curry School of Education students at U.Va. to have won the prestigious science teaching fellowship during the past three years. Applicants must go through a rigorous, multi-stage process to be among the 10 to 15 students selected annually from a national pool. The program provides professional and financial assistance for up to five years, from teacher preparation to eligibility for tenure.

The Knowles fellowship already paid a substantial portion of tuition for one year of Welch’s five-year joint degree — a major in astronomy-physics from the College of Arts & Sciences and a master’s in teaching from the Curry School. The foundation has funded trips to conferences and will provide up to $1,000 a year for classroom enrichment.

Her love of science developed during middle school in St. Louis, Mo., and survived both stimulating — and not-so-exciting — science teachers.

“Although I had thought about teaching and had done a lot of tutoring in high school, I did not initially seek out a teacher education program for college,” Welch said.

After she transferred to the Curry School, she realized she wanted to be one of those memorable science teachers.

“Heather has a rich conceptual understanding of science, pedagogy and current issues,” said Randy Bell, assistant professor of science education, who is Welch’s adviser. “She knows how to use technology to make difficult content in physics and astronomy into concepts that are easier to understand.”

In addition to her student-teaching experience at Albemarle High School, Welch has used technology to help teachers learn. This summer, she’ll work again with physics professor Stephen Thornton in the Master of Arts in Physics Education program. MAPE is similar to a four-week boot camp for science teachers, typically those in biology or chemistry, who have to teach physics because of the shortage of physics teachers, Thornton said.

Welch also has worked with physics professor Michael Fowler, designing computer animations of planetary movement, which “make the physical situation much more vivid,” he said. “Also, since even our first-year physics majors class [at U.Va.] is still only 20 percent or so women, it will be good to have such a role model teaching in a high school.”

Welch will be moving to Albany, New York at the end of the summer and hopes to take her enthusiasm and technology expertise to a high school in the capital region.

Contact: Anne Bromley, (434) 924-6861

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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