Welch giving physics new energy through creative teaching methods
Photo by Dan Addison
By Anne Bromley
Explaining how a loaded gun works is not the best way to teach physics to high-schoolers, but that is an example commonly used to explain trajectory, said U.Va. education student Heather Welch, who graduates on May 22. How about a circus performer being shot out of a cannon, or, to illustrate the working of a pump, the design of an artificial heart?
Welch’s ideas about how best to put her science education to work and drum up interest in the subject among American students won her a selective Knowles Science Teaching Foundation Fellowship, worth about $50,000.
She said there are many ideas about why American students might be less interested in science careers these days, but she thinks the way science is taught often ignores the ways culture has changed and accounts for some of the decline. As a new teacher, she intends to use examples and problems that appeal to a diverse group of students, she said, and to employ instructional technology.
Welch, whose fellowship began last year, is one of three Curry School of Education students at U.Va. to have won the science teaching fellowship during the past three years. Applicants must go through a rigorous, multistage process to be among the 10 to 15 students selected annually from a national pool. The program provides professional and financial assistance for up to five years, covering the period from teacher preparation to eligibility for tenure.
Welch is completing the University’s five-year-joint-degree program with a major in astronomy-physics from the College of Arts & Sciences and a master’s in teaching from the Curry School. The Knowles fellowship already paid a substantial portion of tuition, has funded trips to conferences and will provide up to $1,000 a year for classroom enrichment.
Her love of science developed during middle school in St. Louis, Mo., and survived both stimulating and not-so-exciting science teachers.
“Although I had thought about teaching and had done a lot of tutoring in high school, I did not initially seek out a teacher education program for college,” Welch said.
When she decided to transfer to the Curry School, the move was like putting on a new pair of glasses, enabling her to see the world of science anew and to understand how she herself learned, as well as how she might help other students learn.
“Heather has a rich conceptual understanding of science, pedagogy and current issues,” said Randy Bell, assistant professor of science education, who is Welch’s adviser. “She knows how to use technology to make difficult content in physics and astronomy into concepts that are easier to understand.”
In addition to her student-teaching experience at Albemarle High School, Welch has used technology to help teachers learn. This summer, she’ll work again with physics professor Stephen Thornton in the Master of Arts in Physics Education program. MAPE is similar to a four-week boot camp for science teachers, typically those in biology or chemistry, who have to teach physics because of the shortage of physics teachers, Thornton said.
Welch also has worked with physics professor Michael Fowler, to design computer animations of planetary movement, which “make the physical situation much more vivid,” he said. “Also, since even our first-year physics majors class [at U.Va.] is still only 20 percent or so women, it will be good to have such a role model teaching in a high school.”
Welch will be moving to Albany, N.Y. at the end of the summer and hopes to take her enthusiasm and technical expertise to a high school in the capital region.