Biographies: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Mary Norris

Mary NorrisWhen I tell people that I am a physics teacher, they almost always share one of three memories with me. Either they loved physics because their teacher made it so interesting, they never understood physics because their teacher was so hard, or they happily managed to avoid physics because it sounded too difficult. What that says to me is that physics teachers have a powerful influence on their students. As humans, we are innately curious and observant-we are born scientists. Because physics describes and explains the most basic workings of the universe, it is inherently interesting for most students. Learning physics is hard work, but it is also fun! When we physics teachers welcome our students, believe that they can succeed, and give them the tools to do so, we greatly increase the likelihood that they will be among those that loved physics.

I have been fortunate to have spent the last 28 years teaching physics and other things. This year I am taking a leave of absence from the high school classroom to serve as Virginia Tech's teacher in residence.

Surprisingly, I never planned on becoming a high school teacher. I earned a BS in Geophysics from Virginia Tech in 1984 and, unsure what to do next, decided to try teaching. It ended up being a great decision! I spent my first 16 years at Radford High School. Because it is a small school (450-600 students) I was the lone physics teacher and always taught 3-4 preps including Earth Science, Physics, General Mathematics, and Consumer Math. For the last 12 years I have taught at Salem High School (1200 students). When I started, there were only three physics classes. Because there are now 7 classes including IB Physics, we have two physics teachers. Having a colleague to collaborate with in the same building is wonderful! After 28 years, I still love working with students to help them think like physicists. I love when my students tell me that they thought about physics while driving or that they explained the physics of some phenomenon to their family at the dinner! I know that my physics students will see the world differently at the end of the year than they did at the beginning. A day in the life of a physics teacher is never boring-unless it is a workday and there are no students!

While at Radford, I received two grants-one in which my physics students designed and constructed stream monitoring equipment in collaboration with biology students, and another in which my earth science students collaborated with geometry students to conduct star parties for the community. I have also been a teacher trainer for Texas Instruments, led science summer camps for middle school students, been part of the Nano-bio-geo-chemistry project at Virginia Tech, been appointed as an IB examiner, and mentored many student teachers. I am very excited to be a part of PhysTEC this year and to be able to spread the joy of physics teaching on an even larger scale.

Alma Robinson, 2011-2013

Alma Robinson"Elbows Up! Elbows up!" My swim coached bellowed at us as our technique started breaking down due to exhaustion. "Oh yeah!" I immediately thought, "That would reduce my arm's moment of inertia!" It was at that moment, surprised by the extent of my inner nerdiness, that I decided to become a physics major. Throughout most of my childhood, I had never taken a particularly special interest in school; it was just where I was supposed to go to learn a little, socialize with my friends, and eat square pizza. Physics changed everything. It was absolutely captivating and I began to see it everywhere! I couldn't ride a bike or play a guitar without physics' ubiquitous head popping out to remind me of the laws of the universe. For many of my classmates, however, physics didn't come so naturally. They often struggled through the material and would ask me for help. As I tried to help them learn, I realized how fun and rewarding teaching physics can be and I've never looked back.

As an undergraduate physics major at Virginia Tech, I was able to share my enthusiasm for physics and teaching through our extraordinary Physics Outreach program. Bringing the joys of science to K-12 students was instrumental in cementing my decision to teach and many of those demos are still central to my arsenal of physics tricks today. After graduation, I was able to continue working with the Physics Outreach program as its director while completing my Master's degree in Education.

After leaving Virginia Tech, I spent the next eight years teaching amazing kids from remarkably diverse backgrounds an array of different physics courses ranging from calculus-based AP Physics to hands-on, conceptual physics at Wakefield High School in Arlington, VA. During my summer "vacations" I kept up my teaching endurance by helping ridiculously motivated and gifted students learn a year of high school physics in an intensive three-week program. In addition to working with students, I've also had the wonderful opportunity to mentor both new and pre-service teachers.

What I didn't expect when I first started my career, however, was how much my students would teach me about teaching, learning, and life. As the first Physics Teacher In Residence at Virginia Tech, I hope to utilize my experiences as a student at Virginia Tech and leverage the lessons that I've learned as a teacher to help create a solid and sustainable PhysTEC program. I'm excited for the opportunity to work with the VT Physics and Education departments and the wider community of physics teachers to prepare our pre-service teachers for their future classrooms.