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Exploring New Ways to Teach Physics

Max Schlereth

Kimberley Martell

Physics Teacher, Edmonds-Woodway High School

Kimberley Martell is a physics teacher at Edmonds-Woodway High School who teaches regular and International Baccalaureate (IB) physics.

“I love seeing students who struggle with a concept finally understand it and get excited,” said Kimberley. “It’s the best experience to be a part of.”

After teaching physics for a few years, Kimberley wanted to explore emerging topics in physics that personally interested her, like quantum physics. The IB curriculum she was teaching also added new units in topics like atomic and nuclear physics, which she wasn’t as familiar with.  

She enrolled in physics courses with UW Summer Quarter and then decided to take the next step — pursuing her master's. "I chose the UW Master of Science in Physics program because it was a great program." 

Learn how the UW helped Kimberley explore her passion for physics and develop new ways to teach advanced physics concepts to high school students.

Why did you decide to do the Master of Science in Physics program at the University of Washington?

For undergrad, I did a math major, physics minor and got my teaching certificate all at the same time. I wish I had done a physics major, but it was too late for me to apply when I realized it. I wasn’t compelled to get my masters right away because after graduation I was able to get a job teaching, which is what I wanted to do.

While I taught, I took UW Summer Quarter courses such as Physics by Inquiry. I had the chance to work with other physics and science teachers to develop inquiry-based ways of teaching physics concepts, which is something I now incorporate into my high school classes. While taking these courses, I also realized I missed being a student. I wanted to take those physics classes that I didn’t get an opportunity to take in undergrad.

I chose the Master of Science in Physics program at the UW because it was a great program. The main draw for me was the ability to continue teaching full time while taking in-person classes. I wanted to do labs and have face-to-face interactions with professors and peers rather than complete an online program. There were also a good variety of classes in the evenings and summers.

 

What were your favorite topics in physics?

Atomic, nuclear and quantum physics. I loved using the particle accelerator and doing the radiation labs. These are things I loved exploring on behalf of my high school students.  We’re not going to build a particle accelerator or anything like that. These are just more modern topics discussed in high school physics as opposed to the more traditional focus on mechanics and forces.

It was a fun challenge to be a student again. I always loved solving problems and learning new concepts, and so the core classes Electromagnetic Theory and Quantum Physics provided a structured environment for this to happen.

 

Would you tell us about your capstone project?

For my capstone project, I wanted to do something that would be useful for me in my future as a teacher.

In traditional classes, the teacher lectures, the students take notes and do practice problems, and then the students take a quiz or a test. In inquiry-based learning, students work in groups and develop an understanding of the concepts through simulations, activities and labs. It’s called inquiry-based because they're inquiring why things happen as they do.

Inquiry-based curriculums have been made for topics in high school physics like energy and waves, but not for topics like atomic, particle and nuclear physics. These topics are usually only discussed at universities. For my capstone, I developed an inquiry-based curriculum for particle, atomic and nuclear physics.

I’ve shared my work with another IB teacher in the area. He tried it out and provided feedback. I'm going to make some modifications based on how it went with my class and his class last year and then try it again this year. After I do another round of editing and evaluate the process, I plan on sharing it with the IB physics community as well as with other high school physics teachers.

 

What was it like studying while teaching?

Working while being in school was challenging at times. I was always either lesson planning, grading or doing grad school for about three years.

Every single professor who I interacted with was awesome. They were always very accommodating to all of us, knowing that we had full-time jobs. They answered our questions in class and were very responsive to email.  There were some weeks where I had a lot of grading or lesson planning to do, and so had less time to spend on my own class work. Some professors helped by providing flexible due dates for assignments. Professors always gave us a week or more to do assignments with fixed due dates, and so I was able to plan accordingly to get those done. 

It was cool to share my experience with my students during the program. It was exciting to learn and then teach students about things like the Higgs boson, which was just discovered in 2012. A lot of them are juniors and seniors thinking about college and so they often asked me about my college experience. I would tell them things like, “I did this lab last week” or “I've been working on this paper for grad school.” That made it fun and easier to go through.

 

Do you have advice for someone interested in the program?

Find classmates who are taking the same courses as you and develop a core group of buddies. Study, work on homework and go over the lecture notes with them. Also, find out what areas in physics you're interested in and build a community of people who are also interested in the same topics.

Teaching physics is honestly a great job. I love it so much. There are so many options to explore from working with people to doing research. Just try out what you think you might want and get involved when you can.