Physics learning for the future: Developing new ways of thinking with Eric

2/1/2021 Karmela Padavic-Callaghan

IPaSS program fellow Eric discusses encouraging his students to embrace new views of the world, helping them to transition into adulthood through critical thinking, and finding a reflective and inspiring community in his IPaSS cohort.

Written by Karmela Padavic-Callaghan

IPaSS program fellow Eric discusses encouraging his students to embrace new views of the world, helping them to transition into adulthood through critical thinking, and finding a reflective and inspiring community in his IPaSS cohort.

Eric’s physics classroom is a place for investing in the future as much as it is for excelling in the moment. As a veteran teacher who has taught everything from introductory physics to mathematics and college-level courses, he uses his twenty years of experience to help students construct a scaffolding that can support and ground their own valuable experiences. At the heart of Eric’s teaching philosophy is a desire to give students a space where they can take charge of their own learning. He says, “I want to let my students become adults, to do their homework not for my sake but for the sake of learning and the discipline of wanting to better themselves.”

A graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign with master’s degrees in both physics and education­­–in addition to plenty of time at the front of the classroom–Eric has also been involved with the Physics Education Research (PER) group at Illinois since its very beginning. Summers spent collaborating on curriculum development with physics education researchers have made it a habit for him to strive to grow as a teacher in a way that parallels the growth that he encourages in his students. “I always want to try to redefine or update my instructional techniques and curriculum. It gives me a look towards the future,” he explains. Participating in the Illinois Physics and Secondary Schools (IPaSS) program was a no-brainer for Eric.

The IPaSS program brings together some of Illinois’ top high school physics teachers and physics education researchers from the University of Illinois. The aim of the program is to combine the talent, experience and enthusiasm of teachers like Eric with the academic expertise and resources at Illinois. Participants in the program are seeking to engage high school students within the state in the highest quality physics education experience. IPaSS is funded by the National Science Foundation and was designed to open pathways to engineering for all students across Illinois, consciously create and maintain a vibrant physics teaching community, and develop ways of effectively supporting physics teachers and students alike.

Always looking forward, Eric hopes to contribute to the program as much as he is benefiting from it. “I hope I can give support and encouragement to other teachers and help give them the kind of energy that we all need to move forward as teachers.” In his past work with the PER group, Eric contributed to the creation of the smartPhysics online platform, which is one of the many instructional tools that IPaSS teachers have access to through their partnership with the University of Illinois. The platform itself allows students to watch videos that serve as pre-lectures, then take short “checkpoint” assessments and get quick feedback on how much knowledge they retained. Students can also engage with pre-lab videos preparing them for data collection in the classroom and solve homework problems that build in difficulty and culminate with interactive examples providing general problem-solving strategies and problem-specific hints. As an instructional tool, smartPhysics has always been valuable for a number of introductory physics courses at Illinois in that it “flips” the classroom–it gives students a taste of the material before they interact with the instructor, thus reducing their passive time and encouraging more active engagement in class. Throughout the pandemic, however, it has certainly proven to be a game-changer, because the online, student-paced format works seamlessly with fully remote or partly in-person instruction. Eric is something of a smartPhysics expert and has supported other teachers in the IPaSS program as they implemented it into their practice in order to adjust to the current circumstances.

Weekly meetings with his IPaSS cohort have, however, surprised Eric by being a place for finding new energy and new ways of thinking for himself as well. The life of a physics teacher is hectic, filled-up with grading, lesson-planning and meetings with students and parents, especially now when the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed schools in Eric’s district towards the blended–remote and in-person–model of education. “Life is so crazy, so it's nice to have that scheduled time when I have to stop whatever I'm doing and just think about teaching physics,” he says appreciatively. As the only physics teacher at his school, he has never before had a chance to brainstorm and discuss teaching methods and ideas with other physics teachers with such regularity. Having a space to build these new relationships as a part of the IPaSS program has been a valuable benefit–a nice bonus on top of all the ideas for redesigning labs and rethinking the ways students can work in groups that he has also gained from the program.

Teaching, to Eric, is ultimately also about relationships. “That's why we're teachers,” he puts it simply, recalling all the instances in which past students reconnected with him. Many have shared their own stories and paths within engineering, physics, and sometimes even teaching, asking for advice or just wanting him to know how the seeds that have been planted in his classroom blossomed as time went on. It is his goal to touch their lives in some small way, if not as inspiration then as a friendly challenger of the status quo and a conduit for an expansion of their world. “Physics gives you a different view of the world and a different way to analyze it. I love that, and I want everyone to have that experience,” he explains.

In Eric’s experience, physics requires certain critical skills and thought processes that students often don’t encounter in other courses. Mastering physics then sets them up for becoming more independent and resilient thinkers in the future. Often, Eric finds himself most enthusiastically encouraging students to stick with physics when it does not seem to be clicking for them at all. He admits that for many students, his classes and the subject matter are genuinely very hard. And he knows that physics teachers often have high standards. In a physics class, memorization or repetitive procedures that may prove to be successful tactics in other subjects simply don’t work as well. Eric wants students to move past that way of thinking. He believes that if a physics class is not a student’s most comfortable class because they have to keep finding new ways to analyze, reason, and think, that’s exactly why they should take it. “I want to help students gain skills and develop thought processes and attitudes that are going to help them for the next 40 years of adult life, and not just teach them how to ace an exam.”

Ultimately, it all comes back to investing into the future–his own personal future, the future of the Illinois physics teacher community through IPaSS, and that of the students he cheers on in his classroom.

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This story was published February 1, 2021.