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The Philosophy of Physics

Some academic departments and clubs naturally exist in the spotlight - Theatre, Music, Athletics, Model UN, and Students of Service as examples. Others hum along in what may seem like the background creating awe-inspiring moments, award-winning ideas and  wonder-filled revelations that influence students for the rest of their academic lives and perhaps their careers. 

Chris Mullis ’90 was one such influenced student. The school’s first alumnus to serve as Chair of the Board of Trustees, Mullis attributes his pursuit of astrophysics and success as a member of the global scientific community to a field trip he participated in as a seventh grader. Led by Middle School science teacher Bentha Johnson, this field trip to the Observatory of the Charlotte Amateur Astronomers Club may have been an ordinary jaunt for some students, but for Mullis it was extraordinary - literally life changing. 

Though today’s Physics Department team is different from the one on campus during Mullis’ time as a student, what fuels the underlying current among the faculty is the same: passion.

FALLING IN LOVE WITH PHYSICS

Providence Day’s Physics Department consists of John Makous, Ph.D., Brian Ludwig and Jennifer Haney. While none had an apple-on-the-head moment that propelled them into teaching Physics, each have had a lifelong love affair with science. When their academic or career paths collided head on with Physics, they were each hooked for life.

Makous was the first to envision a future in Physics. His AP Physics class in high school was taught by such a stellar teacher that he began pursuing the subject as a college freshman and went on to earn his BS from Penn State and his doctorate in Experimental Physics from University of Arizona. Makous is such a nationally-respected Physics authority that he not only reads AP exams but also writes questions for the College Board.

Ludwig’s path was a little less direct. In high school, it was English and Chemistry teachers who instilled his general love for learning. The nonfiction accounts as well as the fantastic stories from the likes of Carl Sagan, Jacques Cousteau, and Stephen Jay Gould, in concert with veritable courses in college, kept him locked in the science groove. Having earned his BS from Kent State and MS from Nova Southeastern, Ludwig pursued physics because it was intimidating. He enjoyed the challenge Physics presented and ultimately overcame his fear and turned it into passion. 

Haney’s journey began on a Chemistry trajectory in high school and shifted to Engineering in college. After earning her BS from Georgia Tech and her MS from Georgia State, she taught high school Chemistry. It was fulfilling, but not nearly as much as the Physics course she was asked to substitute for during a faculty vacancy. Haney was so enamored that she pivoted completely, not only trading in her Chemistry curriculum but also switching schools in order to take on a full-time Physics position. 

FINDING A HOME AT PDS 

In 1992, Makous was invited to consider the opportunity to begin an AP Physics program at Providence Day. With his enthusiasm high and the demand for faculty at the college level low, he elected to try his hand at teaching high school. And he has never looked back. Twenty-seven years later, he is still bringing new energy, big ideas and exciting opportunities to campus. 

After teaching in Honduras out of college and then private schools in New Jersey and Florida, Ludwig found a home at PDS 10 years ago. Now also in his 27th year of teaching, Ludwig cites Providence Day as being the most progressive and foresighted school of his career.

A testament to the quality of the School’s faculty, Haney’s 15 years in the classroom make her the department’s neophyte. A member of the PDS community since 2015, Haney was drawn to Providence Day after learning of the school’s small class sizes, consideration given for teacher planning time, and commitment to faculty professional development.  

Together, they have nearly 70 years in combined time in the classroom, more than 40 at PDS alone. When individually asked what keeps them at Providence Day, they each respond in the same way: the people. The synergy between them, the professionalism of their science department peers, the support of school leadership, and the curiosity and enthusiasm of their students creates a learning environment like no other they have experienced.  

IT’S NOT WHAT YOU KNOW,
IT’S WHAT YOU KNOW NOT

Providence Day’s commitment to developing lifelong learners applies not only to the student body but also to the school’s faculty. 

As a continually evolving subject, physics requires educators to be immersed in Physics Education Research, the study of how the field is best learned and how to improve the quality of its instruction. 

Institutional support of their professional development has been enriching, energizing and empowering for all three educators. Each Summer, one, two or all three have attended various conferences or have sought opportunities to refine and advance skills and expertise in subject matter. 

The Green Bank Observatory located in the National Radio Quiet Zone in West Virginia has been the backdrop of much of Makous’ professional development, and a tremendous learning environment for his AP Physics students, since 2003. After a multi-day excursion to the mountains spending every waking moment conducting research and interacting with a telescope 40 feet in diameter, the students returned to campus with a new appreciation for Astronomy and Physics. Several have pursued Radio Astronomy in college as a result of their Green Bank experience.  

In 2016 and again in 2017, Makous spent six weeks in West Virginia as part of a Research Experience for Teachers initiative funded by the National Science Foundation called Digital Signal Processing in Radio Astronomy (DSPIRA). It was during these immersive experiences - which Makous refers to as the most beneficial professional development of his career - that he learned how to use a Horn Antenna Radio Telescope, saw that he could teach his students back home to build one, and how to embed the process into his AP Physics curriculum. 

BRINGING BEST PRACTICES
INTO THE CLASSROOM

Each of the Providence Day’s Physics teachers bring their own flair to the classroom. Makous is notorious for his use of puns; Ludwig has a penchant for making restaurant analogies to explain concepts; and Haney rocks her Physics shoes every Friday for Spirit Day. When it comes to pedagogy, though, they all prescribe to the same school of thought, and it creates incredible synergy between them. 

Three particular philosophical approaches stand out:

Modeling. Makous, Ludwig and Haney are staunch believers of the modeling approach to not only teaching but also to learning. An approach that creates space for learning through minds-in observation and hands-on doing, modeling is a key strategy in each of their classrooms as well as in their own professional development. 

Homework. Work done outside of the classroom should help students independently practice concepts and provide an opportunity for personal feedback. Homework should serve to shorten the learning curve and should not be assessed for a grade; grading should be reserved for tests and exams. To bolster self-efficacy, students need to grow and benefit from their effort. 

Technology. Even in 2018, the most important tools in the Physics classroom are the stopwatch and measuring stick. There is an enormous amount of sophisticated tech that augments classroom instruction - high-speed cameras, robots, graphing apps (including one developed by Makous) - but there is also an overabundance of tech that is hindering concrete learning. Students are at a disservice if armed only with tools that will “magically” generate information. Most powerful of all is good old-fashioned critical thinking. 

Something else that stands out about Makous, Ludwig and Haney is that they see themselves as students too. Their formal education, professional appointments and life experiences make them older and wiser than their students, but certainly not preeminent. They view their relationship with their students as reciprocal. Each has something to teach and a valuable contribution to share.  

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