Where the Rubber Hits the Road: Physics at Kennedy Catholic High School

physicsWhile a new report finds nearly two in five schools across the country don’t offer Physics, the course is considered vital at Kennedy Catholic High School. It’s a cornerstone of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, and the U.S. Department of Education is projecting a meteoric rise in STEM jobs at least through 2020 (see below).

For Georgia Ioannou, a former engineer and Math teacher who has been teaching Physics at Kennedy for 7 years, the reason to teach Physics is even more basic than laying the groundwork to getting a good job.

“Physics actually makes you think. There is a reason for everything, and usually the reason is physics,” she says. “It’s all around us.”

The daughter of Greek immigrants, Ioannou went to St. Demetrios grammar school in Astoria and the Bronx High School of Science before receiving a degree in Electrical Engineering from Cooper Union and her Masters at Manhattan. From there, she went to work for the aerospace company, Loral.

“The stuff I did back then is so obsolete now, because we are moving so fast, but the basics really haven’t changed all that much since Newton, so we just build on it.”

But the way Ms. Ioannou teaches Physics goes far beyond objects at rest and equal and opposite reactions. For her and her students, it’s a matter of learning how to think.

“The majority of my Physics students are Juniors, so they need to start owning their own learning,” she told us, “and I try not to spoon feed them. I force them to do their own learning, make their own decisions.”

That’s all very easy to say, but how do you make a classroom full of seventeen year-olds day-dreaming about driving to Froggy’s after school focus instead upon momentum and inclination?

Easy. You make it all about about cars.

stem-infographic“Most of my lessons deal with transportation,” Ms. Ioannou laughed. “We’re driving! Because if I can make them think twice about going too fast around a turn, then I’ve don
e my job. And that’s exactly where they connect with me. They’ll say, ‘the other day I was driving in the snow, and all I could think about was the coefficient of friction!'”

It’s this elevation of pragmatism which is the hallmark of the ex-engineer’s lesson plan. In Ms. Ioannou’s class, all the coefficients in the world aren’t worth bupkis if you can’t create something with them.

“We’re a technological society. We need to be able to make things, build things, know how something works. How do you make a table stand and not collapse on you? That’s all part of Physics,” she explained. “Maybe you’re not aware of the Math behind it, but you need to have the reasoning skills behind it.”

The Physics teacher’s daughter just graduated college with an engineering degree of her own, and the proud mom notes she is now designing toys for Melissa & Doug. Has being a female engineer, and the mother of a female engineer, made her a crusader for girls in STEM education?

Ms. Ioannou puts it this way:

“When I was getting my teaching certification, I did a paper, ‘Are Boys Better than Girls at Math?’ And basically the answer is, “no.” They think differently, even though it is the new ‘PC’ to say otherwise, but don’t let anyone try to convince you. Yet I would have girls who had higher grades turn around and tell me that the boys were better than them and I would say ‘Excuse me? How could you say that?’ These are the norms of society, so I am trying to work through that.”

Other than shattering societal biases that have been in place for millennia, what is the big difference at Kennedy? Is it the well-equipped labs, the comprehensive slate of Advanced Placement courses, the overwhelming percentage of her students that go on to university…?

“What I love about Kennedy is that we start each day with prayer and the pledge. I love that we start each of my classes with a prayer. I have wonderful colleagues, I am very impressed with the teachers here. I find that the teachers here really care. We all care.”

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