Chicago is an oasis for physics and science education

You may not think of Chicago as a paradise for K-12 education, but for science – and in particular physics – it is.  Here is my “From the Chair” piece for the Fall 2013 issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter:

If you are looking for reasons to be encouraged about the future of physics education, find some great physics instructors and feed off of their passion. Some members of the APS Committee on Education and staff members of the society’s Education and Diversity Department did just that recently, courtesy of Chicago State Physics Professor Mel Sabella, who is a member of our Forum’s Executive Committee and the society’s Committee on Minorities. Mel, working with his colleagues at Harold Washington college, Anthony Escuadro, Jaime Millan, and Phillip Vargas, set up two meetings for the COE members, one with a group of high school physics teachers he works with at Chicago State, and another with physics faculty from several institutions in the city’s system of two-year colleges.

The physics teachers came from a variety of backgrounds — through traditional teacher education programs, alternative certification and Teach for America. They teach at magnet schools, charter schools and traditional schools. What they have in common is that they are passionate, smart, and determined, and that they have been energized through their professional development work with Sabella and others at Chicago State.

Physics — and more generally science — seems to be of central importance in Chicago’s public schools. For those of us from parts of the nation where these subjects do not hold such privileged places, it was like visiting an oasis. The teachers talked about how Chicago’s colleges and universities (including Sabella’s Chicago State) work extensively with the public schools on improving science instruction. They mentioned the influence of Leon Lederman, the Nobel Laureate, former Director of Fermilab, education activist and now Pritzker Professor of Physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

But teaching in an urban environment — and perhaps particularly teaching physics in an urban environment – is incredibly demanding work. At FSU, I once served on the doctoral committee of science education student Rowhea Elmesky, who is now on the education faculty at Washington University at St. Louis. Elmesky’s dissertation work, which was guided by Ken Tobin (now Presidential Professor at CUNY) involved teaching physics to students at an inner city high school in Philadelphia. As part of the supervision of this work, we viewed videos of Elmesky’s teaching. The scenes from those videos are burned into my mind, and I have tremendous admiration for teachers with the courage to help their students achieve in such environments.

The Chicago City College faculty we met with talked about the challenges of working with students who themselves have extensive obligations with work and family outside of the classroom. They also described how their teaching had evolved to meet the needs of these students. This process was helped along by a major project to renovate physics classrooms into studio configurations at all of the colleges. The room in which we met at Harold Washington College downtown is one of those renovated classrooms, and it is a terrific facility. Great faculty with great support from college administration — that is a recipe for student achievement that we all recognize.

The high school and two-year college faculty we met with work with many students from low-income backgrounds. A great deal depends on the success of these students — for our fields of physics and engineering, for society, and for the students themselves. For our fields, these students are our best hope for a more diverse workforce in which we finally overcome the severe underrepresentation of certain minority groups. For society, the success of these students will dramatically expand the supply of scientific and technological leaders. And for these students, careers in engineering and the physical sciences are the best opportunities for upward economic mobility in an increasingly difficult employment marketplace. To a large extent, the future depends on the work of the faculty we met in Chicago — and others like them throughout the nation.

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