UT Arlington researchers aim to help teachers bring quantum physics into the classroom
High school students don’t typically have the chance to learn about quantum physics unless they take advanced courses in college. That’s a shame, because the concepts from quantum physics underlie most of our emerging technologies, and they are key to advances including more securely encrypting data and engineering sleeker cell phones. Karen Jo Matsler wants to change that. She is a master teacher in the University of Texas at Arlington’s STEM secondary teacher preparation program called UTeach. Now, she is leading a national initiative to help high school teachers bring quantum physics into their classrooms. Matsler and others will train teachers with a series of nationwide workshops scheduled to start next month. She and project co-investigator Ramón López, a UT Arlington distinguished professor of physics and co-director of UTeach Arlington, received a $998,448 grant from the National Science Foundation in March to support this three-year initiative. They will work with more than 20 experts in physics and education to explain core topics in quantum physics — the science of how atoms and subatomic particles interact with each other. This summer’s workshops will be held virtually July 20-23. Next year’s in-person workshops will include gatherings in Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, as well as at the University of Pittsburgh and Brigham Young University, which are partner institutions for the project. More than 80 teachers have already signed up for these sessions, and limited registration is still open for participants who live near these host sites. The “ Quantum for All ’' initiative represents almost 10 years of Matsler’s efforts to help teachers recognize the important practical applications of quantum-based concepts. She and others argue that these concepts are critical to the future of the country’s data security infrastructure. “Just the word ‘quantum’ seems to be kind of scary to people,” Matsler said. “We have to find inroads, using what [teachers] already know and developing [lessons] from there, and that’s a really challenging task.” Most high school teachers do not have a strong background in physics or familiarity with quantum physics. So the workshops are all about helping teachers work through the gaps in their knowledge. Kelvin Kibler, a Houston-area physics teacher, says students pick up on that discomfort. “As teachers we don’t have to necessarily be experts, but we can facilitate,” Kibler said. As part of the “Quantum for All” workshops, the teachers will learn about quantum physics and provide lessons to high school students at STEM camps. They’ll practice teaching the new material before taking these concepts back to their own classrooms. The teachers will reach out to each other and share feedback about their experiences on what did and did not work well in the classroom. Kibler, who will be one of the instructional leaders for the program, said he hopes this will keep teachers feeling engaged and supported throughout the process. The instructional leaders will make sure that any of the practical demonstrations could be done regardless of any budget constraints. For teachers like Kenric Davies, an AP physics and astronomy teacher at Liberty High School in the Frisco ISD, the move toward quantum physics will help his students make more connections between physics and their daily lives. Most high school students learn about classical mechanics — how objects move and the forces that influence that motion. But with these changes to the curriculum, students will learn about concepts relevant to current research. This can influence what they might decide to study when they get to college. Kibler, the Houston physics teacher, also says that being able to incorporate quantum physics into his lessons will also help tie together concepts between physics, biology, chemistry and math. Cody Fults, the lead AP physics instructor at Ennis High School, says he is looking forward to being able to show his students a different way to practically apply math. He emphasizes to his students that math is a language to describe the relationships between objects. By learning quantum physics, students will be better prepared for the future, even if they don’t pursue physics or engineering. “I’m always looking for better connections for my students,” said Davies, who is also a member of the instructional leadership team. “I want to see what are some other applications that maybe I’m missing? Where are other places that we can reel in the students?” Matsler and López will evaluate the workshops, and they’d like to track how much of the material makes it into classes in years to come. “There’s nothing more satisfying than working with teachers, and then knowing that they’re going to go back and make a difference for their kids,” López said.