The Teacher

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Spotlight on Hidden Physicists

The Teacher

Mary E. Williams-Norton, Professor Emerita at Ripon College

“Every child should be able to have fun with physics.”

Photo courtesy of Mary E. Williams-Norton.

This was my mission for 37 years. I am now retired, but during my career as a professor at Ripon College, I taught physics and astronomy to undergraduate students. I also taught them how to teach.

My elementary and secondary science teaching courses for undergraduates turned future teachers into advocates for physics. I hope I showed them—so that they could show their future students—that men AND women, boys AND girls can both enjoy and succeed in science, especially physics.

This wasn’t always easy, of course. I often had students who said that they weren’t any good at math or science, or that they didn’t like the subjects. How do you expect to teach children math or science if you don’t have a good attitude toward the material, or believe in your own abilities?

I also encountered men who believed that women and girls couldn’t do science. Of course, this attitude was deeply frustrating. I am just one of thousands of counterexamples to that argument.

In addition to teaching, I have spent my career directing grant-supported projects to improve elementary-school science education, which is such a critical time for sparking a child’s interest in physics. I also advised the Physics Fun Force, the outreach arm of Ripon’s SPS chapter. The Fun Force taught hundreds of elementary-school students about forces, energy, sound, light, buoyancy, and other basic physics concepts, as well as about astronomy and the wonders of our solar system. Children were able to learn about these concepts through hands-on investigation.

Because of my Welsh heritage, I also started projects connecting Wisconsin elementary schools to schools in Wales. The American students learn a bit of Welsh, and the Welsh students learn about American culture (as well as learning how to find Wisconsin on a map!).

It was so rewarding to share the fun of physics with people of all ages, especially young children and their teachers. If you think this is your calling, too, I encourage you to become active in outreach. Take every opportunity you can to share your excitement about physics with others. Share with them how much fun it is to do physics experiments and observe the night sky. Good luck, or as we say in Welsh, pob lwc!

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