Dr. Ken Taylor has never been known as the easiest teacher in town. In fact, the science and math teacher is practically famous at Lake Highlands High School for challenging even the brightest of students.
Each year he saves his biggest challenges for his advanced placement (AP) physics class, made up of some of the school’s top seniors. But this year, Taylor went even further than usual. He had the students do something no other high school class has done before: form small groups to conduct experiments not covered in their textbook – or any textbook – and present their findings to an audience.
And while it might be easy to impress the average audience with a physics experiment – just throw in a few force theorems and integration calculations and most will think you’re brilliant – this was no ordinary group. It was the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), gathered in Austin for a biannual national conference.
At the conference, the students effectively taught physics to physics teachers. That meant they had to perform experiments tough enough and unusual enough to show the teachers something they didn’t already know.
“I let the students choose from a list of topics I thought would include criteria worthy of publication in a journal,” Taylor says. “They were working on topics far too complicated to do in a normal classroom.”
So complicated, in fact, the students had to learn physics and calculus topics they hadn’t yet covered in class before beginning their experiments. And knowing that there would probably be questions about their methods and findings, the students had to know them backward and forward.
This year’s valedictorian Katie Allen, salutatorian Katherine Kohan and Sheena Black formed one group, choosing to measure normal force vs. buoyancy force on an object dropping through water.
First they spent hours studying on their own to learn the underlying theories and methods involved in the experiment. Then they built a structure in which to conduct the experiment by shopping at fishing stores and hardware shops for the right equipment, then firing up a circular saw and other power tools to put it all together.
“That part was really fun,” says Kohan. “One group of football players painted their structure all black, so we painted ours bright pink. Dr. Taylor named theirs ‘testosterone’ and ours ‘estrogen.’”
While conducting ground-breaking physics experiments is impressive enough, even more impressive is that the students did it all on their own time, putting in hours on weekends and almost every day of the Christmas break.
“The kids worked their tails off,” Taylor says. “I left it up to them to decide when they’d come in to work on it, and they jumped right into it. They came in when the school was closed and had to fight the janitors to get in. How many times do you see that happening?”
Allen says her group spent approximately 300 hours on their project.
“We were at the school almost every day during the break, sometimes eight hours a day,” she says.
At times Kohan says she felt overwhelmed by all the work.
“For a while, I really resented how hard he was always pushing us to learn more,” she says. “But he treated us like adults, like we had potential. It taught us how to work together, to figure it out and just get it done. And it was a great sense of accomplishment watching it all come together.”
Taylor, whose career includes working on the “Star Wars” missile defense program in addition to his 18 years of teaching, says that’s a big reason why he enjoys teaching physics.
“It’s a great training ground for teaching someone to learn,” he says. “Students have to think on an entirely different level. Sometimes they’d get frustrated because things didn’t work as they expected, and I’d tell them, ‘Welcome to the real world of science.’”
When the day came for presentations, Taylor says the groups did a great job.
“I received many positive comments about them from fellow physics teachers,” he says. “Some want to try to do something similar with their classes.”
Now with the presentations behind them, most of the students have their minds on graduation and college in the fall. But Allen has decided to take the experiment to yet another level. This summer, she’ll expand upon her group’s work to write a formal paper on the subject, hoping to be published in the AAPT’s national journal.
The additional work probably will take up the better part of her summer break. So why would a student who already has been accepted into Yale and who has earned just about every honor imaginable for a high school student take on that kind of project after graduation?
“Because I can,” Allen says. “It’s an opportunity few students ever have, and the idea of being published in a national teaching publication is an honor. It will be a challenge, but I’m willing to take it.”
It’s that kind of commitment that Taylor says makes his job so enjoyable.
“A teacher’s dream is a student who wants to learn,” he says, adding that he’s proud of all the students for working so hard. “The project was absolutely a success. They learned a lot, and I learned things, too.”
“It was a great experience,” she says. “I learned so much about myself, what I could do and how to deal with problems as they come up. I honestly feel more prepared for college and for life.”