Dr. Robert Goodman was never supposed to be a physics teacher. As far back as high school, his own teachers told him he didn’t have the aptitude for what we now call STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education. At the time, those courses were constructed in a way that almost screened students out of the curriculum and consequently STEM careers. Dr. Goodman, however, had other plans. He ended up going to MIT, and then went on to be the CEO of two companies, and now teaches physics in New Jersey. He’s also the director of the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning, which has emerged as a premier program not just for teaching physics, and advancing STEM education, but helping teachers become STEM educators.
On average, the US education system turns out just 300 physics teachers each year, resulting in a national shortfall. Why is that? On one hand, there are many careers that a physics education will get you that pay far more than teaching. On the other hand, physics has a reputation for being a hard subject, which tends to turn off people who might be oriented to education as a career. According to Goodman, not all of this is the fault of educators – he says the curriculum, including how physics is placed in the sequence of sciences in K-12, makes physics hard to teach and harder to learn.
So, he turned the formula on its head. “A lot of what I did was basic stuff like putting kids at circular tables so they could talk to each other, and then I made the class less about listening to me talk and more about working through problems,” Goodman said in an interview with CivSource. He got rid of the textbooks too. Instead, he created a sort of an open-source model for curriculum with editable word documents that are available online.
In the early 2000’s Goodman proved that this model works. His kids were passing AP Physics at twice the rate of other schools, even those considered to be top schools for the subject. That success got Goodman the New Jersey Teacher of the Year award in 2006, and also caught the attention of other educators. New Jersey, like many states, has moved toward a performance-based teaching model. The idea is to tie teacher pay to things like test scores. But, according to Goodman, one critical aspect was missing from the discussion – “Everyone was talking about teacher performance but no one was talking about how to make better educators,” he explains. “The mission of the center is to help existing teachers become better, and learn how to be STEM teachers.”
The center now produces 3x the number of physics teachers per year than New Jersey has had historically. And, they come directly from the existing teaching pool – once the training is completed a teacher can return to the classroom. The open source lesson plans are based around the AP test, but also allows students to see the application of physics beyond just rolling balls down ramps. Interactive white boards and student polling devices facilitate the use of CTL’s curriculum materials to create highly collaborative classrooms.
The Center and Dr. Goodman’s teaching methods also caught the attention of the World Bank, which asked him to do a physics and math education pilot project in The Gambia. Hanover Research tracked the outcomes of the pilot which led to a 600 percent increase in the number of students passing physics there. There was also a 300 percent increase in further mathematics. Goodman is now working on a similar pilot for English to help students improve in language arts and literature.
Goodman hopes that the open source model for physics will continue to expand locally and internationally. “Why should we have 1000 teachers here in the US making their own individual lesson plans when they could all be working on making the same lesson plan better? If everyone is doing different things, we run the risk of incoherence,” he says. “I guess it’s just my business background but I look at it from an opportunity cost standpoint – time and efficiency.”
He also has plans to work on other aspects of the STEM curriculum – like computer science – you can sense from talking to him that he sees an urgent need for new models. “Before, we didn’t need that many people in STEM careers so if these classes acted like screeners that was ok. But now, STEM is part of almost every major career path. We need to bring more students in, not keep them out.”