I always liked math. It took work, but it came pretty easily to me most of the time. I liked being able to work out the abstract problems and get the right answer. I liked getting positive feedback and encouragement from my teachers, as one of the top math students. Then I took physics senior year in high school. Suddenly sin(x) was equal to x, if x was a small angle. Suddenly all the nice rules of math were up for grabs and approximations had to be devised to solve the problems. Initially I found this to be hard. Sometimes I still do, even as a working research physicist. Because suddenly creativity and insight were a major part of my science education.
I still remember my first physics teacher. He had been working in industry for years prior to his new teaching career, so he was a “real” physicist instead of just a high school teacher. The lesson that I remember the most was about lenses. Before the teacher lectured on the subject in class, he handed out to each group a lens and a flashlight. We were suppose to devise experiments to determine the unknown properties of the lens. Most people tried various experiments inside the dark classroom, shining the flashlight on the lens (with only a vague understanding of what we were even looking for). A few people also went outside to use the sun as a very distant source of light. Very few, if any, of us figured out the lens equation or imaging properties of the lens. However, we ALL paid attention to the next lecture on lenses. Our teacher challenged and engaged us. He made us think, instead of just having us solve cookbook problems for the upcoming tests. My first introduction to physics was hard but interesting. And when I went off to college, it gave me a head start in my physics career. If I could grade my high school physics teacher, I’d give him an A.
A lot of women have stories about their science and math teachers — what did they do right or wrong? How did they influence your career, education and life? Now you have the chance to share your stories. Under the Microscope is a blog about women and science education. They collect stories from women involved in science, technology, engineering and math with the goal of publishing a survival guide for young women in science. In the month of May, Under the Microscope is sponsoring a project to get women to write a “report card” for their early math and science teachers. Hurry and add your stories by May 31.