DUANE B. Merrell finds some of his best instruction tools in toy and hardware stores. As an assistant teaching professor of physics and astronomy at BYU, he uses them to help future physics educators launch bottle rockets across the length of a football field or shoot straws through rings hanging from the classroom ceiling.
“It is inspiring to observe his passion for teaching,” says Heather J. McKnight (BS ’07), who, like many of Merrell’s students, became a physics teacher despite the fact that the discipline is research dominated. Many physics majors shy away from secondary teaching, tempted by the salaries offered in the private sector and the prestige of academic research. But Merrell is part of the BYU machine helping to fill the sparse ranks of physics educators throughout the nation.
While some universities go several years without seeing a student graduate in physics teaching, BYU has consistently been among the top five universities to provide physics educators to public schools. In fall 2006 and winter 2007, BYU graduated 16 students qualified to teach physics—nearly 5 percent of the national output as reported in Science magazine.
Merrell, who has 20 years of teaching experience in public schools, was hired three years ago to prepare secondary physical science teachers at BYU. He urges his students to learn through their own inquiries and to teach through discovery.
“I try to model good instruction, and I don’t teach that by just lecturing,” Merrell says. “I want them to feel what it’s like to be in the shoes of a real teacher.”
Many of Merrell’s students have applied his teaching style in their own classrooms. Some have shot eggs into cement walls or built 6-foot straw towers to support softballs. Others have pushed their students in shopping carts while the students dropped sand bags every two seconds to measure their acceleration.
Merrell works closely with the BYU Department of Teacher Education to help students receive their teaching licenses and to get degrees from the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. He also personally matches students with secondary physics teachers who work in Utah public schools. The teachers mentor the BYU students, teaching them to handle spontaneous problems in the classroom, such as botched experiments.
“I want student teachers to see that things don’t always go smoothly,” says “Eli” Douglas K. Panee (BS ’91), a physics teacher at Oak Canyon Junior High in Lindon, Utah. “I get them started, but when it doesn’t work I want them to know how to change ideas midstream.”
When Panee had to go out of town for two weeks, he left McKnight—his student teacher—to keep order among his eighth graders. Instead of borrowing Panee’s lesson plans and experiments, she created her own. BYU students always come to the classroom prepared, says Panee. “They understand that there is ‘no greater call’ than teaching.”
Rachel L. Pryor (’07) would have performed experiments in a lab after graduation, but instead she’ll be conducting them in a high school classroom this fall. While Pryor was completing her senior project, a friend told Pryor she would make an excellent teacher. At that point she decided to switch to physics education.
“I realized that just being a researcher wasn’t for me,” says Pryor. “I wanted to inspire kids and help them become as excited about science as I am, and I realized teaching was the best way to do that.”