The mere mention of the word “physics” can be enough to induce anxiety in even the most intrepid undergraduates. Visions of tricky experiments and whiteboards cluttered with cryptic equations abound.
It doesn’t seem coincidental that some of the greatest minds in recent history—Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein—made their names as physicists. But is a genius-level IQ necessary for the study of the discipline?
According to Professor of Physics and Astronomy Pat Polley, good teaching determines student comprehension, not simply raw talent.
Polley, who has been at the college for more than two decades, knows a thing or two about teaching physics to young people. In fact, he wrote the very first laboratory manual for Advanced Placement (AP) Physics, the college-level physics course offered to high school students across North America.
Through an affiliation with the College Board, Polley has also spent the past 22 years training AP physics teachers, primarily in the Midwest and the American South. During that time, he has constructed some 60 labs for instructors to run in their classrooms, all with an emphasis on affordability.
“One of the complaints I heard early on in my work with AP was, ‘I’d love to do labs, but the equipment is so expensive,’” Polley says.
But practicing physics doesn’t have to be pricey. Proof can be found on Polley’s desk in his Center for the Sciences office: It is crowded with boxes of inconspicuous household items—batteries, copper wires, and small wooden rods. Once Polley puts a few magnets in the mix, these miscellaneous objects make up all the necessary components of a lab experiment on magnetic fields. According to him, the total cost of the equipment is no more than a few dollars per student.
Keeping the cost of physics experiments down is critical for school districts squeezed by budget cuts. Polley believes that success in physics is predicated on working with physical materials, rather than relying on a textbook to explain concepts.
“Nobody gets paid to do homework problems,” he says. “People are paid in order to understand things, and their lives are made better and easier when they understand how things work.”
Comprehension is Polley’s ultimate goal—he isn’t necessarily trying to inspire a lifelong love of physics in high school students.
“My push is not to make a lot more physicists,” he admits. Rather, he wants students to develop an understanding of the physical mechanisms at play in their world, from the workings of a light switch to the intricacies of the combustion engine.
However, several obstacles stand in the way of learning in the AP classroom.
When a lack of school district resources is combined with an insufficient level of teacher preparedness—as it so often is—student knowledge is sure to suffer. Through his work with the College Board, Polley seeks to mitigate both issues. Often, the teachers assigned to teach physics at the high school level have not studied the subject intensively themselves. “People with degrees in physics can usually make more money doing something else,” Polley explains. He describes an all-too-common scenario: a biology teacher is called into an administrator’s office and told that he or she will be teaching physics the next academic year.
“[Teachers] are barely a chapter ahead of the students as they’re going through the term,” says Polley.
According to Polley, only about a quarter of high school physics teachers have earned a degree in physics, and another 25 to 30 percent have taken just a single year of physics classes at the college level. The remaining number have even less experience with the subject.
“I think physics can be difficult. It need not be, but in order to teach it easily, people need more training in it,” he says.
At the best of times, physics is challenging. The first step in fostering student interest and engagement is ensuring that teachers can explain challenging concepts in an accessible way. This is where Polley thrives: teaching teachers.
His favorite place to do so is the Advanced Placement Summer Institute, a series of intensive weeklong professional development courses designed to prepare instructors for the rigors of AP Physics. Here, he helps teachers hone in on their strengths and develop an individualized approach to their material.
“Teaching is intensely personal,” Polley says. “The same things that one person does in the classroom might not work for someone else.”
While no one tactic can facilitate student understanding, Polley knows that the key to physics is numerical literacy.
“[Teachers] have to be engaged with the students and be sensitive to where the students get lost in the math,” he says. “Getting them to become familiar and comfortable with the math is the most important thing.”