It takes a village to teach physics well

4/1/2021 Karmela Padavic-Callaghan

Local high school teacher builds community and gains new teaching skills and tools through the IPaSS program at the U of I.

Written by Karmela Padavic-Callaghan

As the only full-time high school physics teacher within the five schools that make up her district, Marianna values staying in touch with the larger physics community. Participating in the Illinois Physics and Secondary Schools (IPaSS) program has made that possible for her even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Connections with other physics teachers are a big part of Marianna’s story. A lover of physics from her high school days and a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Physics, she got little nudges and encouragements from former teachers early in her career. Relationships with those mentors and colleagues led her to engage first with local organizations for physics teachers then with the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). Her work still incorporates some of the ideas she picked up during professional meetings, conferences, and workshops. These were and are a big influence on how each piece of her teaching strategy is intentionally constructed.

In fact, it was during a national AAPT meeting that Marianna reconnected with a past University of Illinois advisor, setting off a chain of events that led her to join the IPaSS program on the Urbana campus. 

The IPaSS program, funded by the National Science Foundation, has as its broad mission to foster and support a bright and vital physics teaching community throughout the State of Illinois, to make paths towards careers in engineering accessible to all high school students in the state, and to create mechanisms and means for consistently supporting those students and their physics teachers. It brings together some of Illinois’ best high school physics teachers with physics education researchers at the U of I. By participating in IPaSS, teachers like Marianna—experienced, but still passionate about advancing their teaching even further—can start to apply tools used in college courses at Illinois to their high school level classes.

According to Marianna, learning to apply evidence-based physics education research to her teaching practices isn’t the only benefit of her participation in IPaSS. The community aspect of IPaSS also drew her in.

"It’s just been really nice to have that community," she says. "We're all there for the same purpose, purely for development and support of each other—for learning and for growth."

During a year full of crises, all aspects of the program have touched Marianna’s teaching. Weekly IPaSS Zoom meetings have allowed her to connect with teachers that live far away from both her school and the Illinois campus. Simultaneously, resources developed at Illinois helped her navigate teaching during the pandemic.

While Marianna’s school operated entirely remotely—and continuing once classes returned to buildings in her district—her students used Interactive Online Labs (IOLabs), small wireless devices developed by a U of I physicist that enable students to conduct open-ended physics experiments at home. This made it possible for Marianna’s students to dip their toes into the world of physics labs. She also used the smartPhysics online platform that engaged them with lectures, pre-lab videos, examples of problem-solving strategies, and some challenging problems for trying those out outside of livestreamed classes.

"IPaSS has been a lifesaver for pandemic teaching," Marianna asserts.

At a time when teachers across the nation have been challenged to deliver high-quality instruction remotely, Marianna has been meeting that demand while advancing and modernizing her teaching methods.  

In the classroom, her sights are set on students finding larger structures and connections between physics concepts. She does not want to let her students think of physics—or physicists—from a narrow perspective.

"I really emphasize to my students that the idea of biology, chemistry, and physics in unique boxes is a myth," she explains. "In truth, science is science, and if you are to pursue any of the sciences, you need a bit of everything."

Marianna herself implements this when she designs her courses, drawing on physics education research and methods from cognitive science, some of which she learned about in IPaSS meetings. Through this approach, she wants students to reach “expert-level” thinking, or the ability to look at a problem and see the big picture rather than focusing on the minutiae of some calculation.

At the same time, students in her classroom also make smaller, more personal connections. Individual bonds fostered through group work with their peers provide students with support and courage to tackle often challenging physics ideas. Marianna says that, especially under the constraints of atypical school schedules during the COVID-19 pandemic, her students have appreciated the chance to engage with science as a team sport.

Marianna also took advantage of many scientists currently working from home in order to connect them to her students as well, through a series of Identity Encounters. These are events in which students engage with a working scientist who may look much more like them than that picture of Isaac Newton on their textbook cover does. In this way, Marianna is making sure that students understand that being a physicist is no longer synonymous with being a white male scientist. By integrating into her curriculum livestreams and Zoom presentations by researchers from a variety of backgrounds and life stories, Marianna is affirming that anyone in her classroom can do physics and work to be a part of the rich network of researchers, teachers, and students that make up the physics community.

“What I am really here for is having students feel like science is a thing that they can do,” she emphasizes. “That's something that's lasting beyond a school year.”

Marianna's classroom and her community are bound to keep growing. She is a master network-builder, from her expert use of Twitter’s #iteachphysics community to her enthusiasm for IPaSS.  In fact, her networking abilities are also helping to build the IPaSS program: she is already recruiting other teachers from her area to join the program in its next iteration.

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This story was published April 1, 2021.