By Jay Fields
For Tammara Garrett, a high school senior in Fentress County, Tennessee, “doing a lot of electromagnetic stuff and viewing the ultraviolet spectrum” became a welcome part of her day in this rural community where studying physics had previously been about as rare as spotting an ivory billed woodpecker.
Thanks to an innovative application of distance learning developed at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 30 college-bound science students in the county, along with their classroom teachers, were able to seize upon a jewel of a learning experience at a time when they really wanted it.
“For a serious student, this is great,” Tammara says, “I like the physical sciences and I saw this as an opportunity. I especially liked the hands-on work.”
A Unique Structure
Much of the course, taught as a block segment in the fall of 2008, did engage teachers and students in exercises illustrating the laws of physics. But the basic teaching structure flowed out of interactive videoconferencing between the Nielsen Physics Building on the UTK campus and a classroom in Fentress County where students from Clarkrange High School and the Alvin C. York Institute gathered and took part in lectures and discussions.
According to Dr. Jon Levin of UT’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, a professor heavily involved in the project as both planner and instructor, there are fewer than 200 out of 300 public high schools in Tennessee that offer physics. “Many rural schools in the state don’t have accredited teachers,” he says.
“On the other hand,” says Dr. Lynn Champion, director of Academic Outreach and Communications for the College of Arts and Sciences, “we had very capable and knowledgeable physics teachers here at UT Knoxville and interested Tennessee high school students without teachers. The option that came to mind was distance education.”
She didn’t know if physics could be taught through distance learning, however, because of the challenge of conducting laboratory exercises. Dr. Levin felt that issue could be addressed through a combination of inter-active instruction via camera set-ups on both ends and periodic UT staff visits to Fentress County for hands-on lab work.
Addressing the STEM Priority
For both physics-teachers-in-training and students, the program answers a national and state priority to increase college graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM disciplines.
“Physics is at the root, the most fundamental of the sciences,” Levin says and, as Tammara Garrett, whose long-range goal is to teach high school biology, recalls, “I took a lot of notes.”
Kelly Ramey, a certified chemistry and biology teacher at Alvin C. York and Tammara’s instructor, remembers, “I got super interested when UT called. We had 40 kids who wanted to take the course at York and enrolled 24. There were also six from Clarkrange, which is a much smaller school. I went to Clarkrange myself.”
“Science is coming back to the forefront,” she says, “and I’m learning with the kids. My ultimate goal is to be certified in physics, so I wanted to get involved.”
Linda Jordon, a science consultant for the Tennessee State Department of Education, recommended Fentress County Schools for the pilot program mainly because of the school’s enthusiasm for the project.
Making it Happen
The College of Arts and Sciences at UTK provided significant funding from private gift endowment earnings that support K–12 outreach projects. Other extraordinarily important team members in the venture have been Physics Department Head Soren Sorensen, department teaching assistant Erica Johnson, and the Office of Information Technology at the university.
“Physics by distance” will most likely stream into a classroom from an oversized television screen at York Institute in the fall of 2009. Students and instructors will again hold atmospheric conversations that touch on entropy, friction, impedance, repulsion, causality, and centripetal force.
In such a rural part of Tennessee, economically depressed, where close to 60 percent of all students qualify for free lunches, it seems particularly rewarding that the intellectual gifts of learning physics are not only accessible but also capable of kinetically influencing students toward noteworthy achievement in college, career, and life in general.
“It’s not an easy subject,” says Dr. Levin. “It’s a grind to learn and you learn best by doing. But with these kids, we’ve been very pleased, and we so appreciate the connection.”
As Tammara Garrett succinctly puts it, “I got to learn a lot.”
Kelly Ramey and her team of science students, including Tammara Garrett, recently won the Tennessee Envirothon competition, sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture, which teaches students to view their environment as a dynamic, integrated system and encourages comprehensive systems management as a team.