In addition to Cook's Branch, participants in the 2012 Mitchell Institute Physics Enhancement Program (MIPEP) spent time on the Texas A&M University campus, touring laboratories and getting hands-on training and experience in many of the lessons they will teach in their own classrooms.


A select group of Texas teachers is taking the future of physics education into their own hands, returning to the classroom as students for a two-week summer stint as the first participants in a Texas A&M University program aimed at improving high school mathematics and science performance across the Lone Star State.

The inaugural Mitchell Institute Physics Enhancement Program (MIPEP), hosted June 10-23 by the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy and underwritten by The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation with funds provided through the Texas A&M Foundation, is a grassroots effort by educators seeking self-help in solving the problem where they admit it partially starts -- the head of the class.

"The ranking of Texas schools in math and science is below average, and a main unfortunate reason for this is underprepared math and science teachers in Texas classrooms," says Dr. Bhaskar Dutta, Texas A&M professor of physics and astronomy and a co-organizer of the program. "Many science teachers who are teaching physics in Texas schools have had zero to two physics courses total in their education."

Dutta credits Paula Hiltibidal, an Education Service Center (ESC) Region 15 master teacher and high school science specialist in the Early Independent School District, as the key force behind MIPEP and the idea that two weeks of rigorous physics education at a college sophomore level (e.g. PHYS 201-202) could be of tremendous benefit in preparing science teachers to teach in high school classrooms. The two worked in haste along with Dutta's departmental colleagues Dr. Alexey Belyanin and Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova to quickly organize such a program with the help of generous funding from the Mitchell Foundation in time to benefit teachers before another summer -- and, by association, another school year -- could elapse.

Their proactive result is a 2012 MIPEP roster that features 15 teacher-students from 13 different school districts who share two common required factors: Each currently teaches high school physics and took no more than two physics courses while in college. Program coursework is based on a "train-the-trainer" concept and presented by 16 Texas A&M physics and astronomy faculty. The curriculum is focused on clarifying fundamental physics concepts through easy introduction of necessary material, problem-solving and hands-on demonstrations. All material is based on problems that appear in the physics portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) state-required examination for Texas high school students.

"We are very excited by this new strategy to improve high school science education in Texas -- an important outreach effort and goal for the Department of Physics and Astronomy, the College of Science and Texas A&M University," says Dr. H. Joseph Newton, dean of the College of Science. "This investment by the Mitchell Foundation is a most welcome addition to our broad and lengthy history of continuous commitment toward improving K12 science education and achievement, especially in the area of providing outstanding training for teachers."

In sharp contrast to most participants' traditional school-year classrooms, MIPEP sessions are held at the picturesque Cook's Branch Conservatory northwest of Houston. Attendees also are exposed to two days of laboratory-based work on the Texas A&M campus within active research labs prior to the conclusion of the program, for which they receive a certificate as well as Continuing Professional Education credits. In addition to training, each earns a $500 stipend and travel reimbursement, along with complimentary meals and lodging at Cook's Branch.

"The school is very intense and focused, with adequate pre- and post-assessments to track its effectiveness and help determine whether the school has really helped participants with their knowledge of physics," Dutta explains.

Dutta says because effective measurement and analysis is paramount to both program organizers and participants, they've left nothing to chance in that department, entrusting the critical task of evaluation to Dr. Lynn Burlbaw, a professor in the Texas A&M Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture who specializes in curriculum and instruction and related program evaluation. In addition to daily feedback opportunities regarding specific concepts presented during the program, teachers will be asked to take part in post-event follow-ups using web-based surveys intended to track several factors over time, including whether they are better prepared to handle their science classrooms, thanks to the coursework, as well as what worked and what would have worked better.

"We're hopeful that including such a thorough evaluation component will help enhance future program objectives and curriculum by integrating the best practices and also allow us to sustain this program in future," Dutta says. "Participants even have the opportunity to get help once they go back to their schools. They can ask science questions by sending us emails or calling us, and their students can ask us questions as well. In this sense, there is a real long-term benefit of this program. We think it will impact high school science education tremendously across the state."

Click here to learn more about the Mitchell Institute Physics Enhancement Program (MIPEP) and other institute activities.


Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or shutchins@science.tamu.edu or Dr. Bhaskar Dutta, (979) 204-7531 or dutta@physics.tamu.edu

Hutchins Shana

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