Magazine On-line [spring 2009]
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A passion for physics

When Karen Gill ’90 was in high school, she wrote a program in Pascal computer programming language to solve projectile motion problems, just for the fun of it. These days, her work centers on imparting that natural passion for physics to her students. A science teacher at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, she was named Kentucky’s Teacher of the Year for 2009 and will represent Kentucky in the 2009 National Teacher of the Year competition.

Gill, who has been teaching for 18 years, was a runner-up for the Teacher of the Year honor last year. She said that she was surprised by the win this year, given that she works with so many outstanding people.

“Kentucky has been on the forefront of education for many years,” she said. “We have great ideas and great programs. I hope I can do this award justice.”

Though she said she would most likely turn down a semester off, Gill will receive $10,000 and embark on a year of activities that include making speeches and representing Kentucky teachers on a national level.

Her message is one that emphasizes the importance of education in a changing world. Gill contends that modern society is so complex, people of the twenty-first century must master numerous diverse and complex fields that were once the domain of an elite few.

“The pace of innovation continues to accelerate,” she said. “What once was new and cutting-edge becomes the foundation of entirely new fields, and the once state-of-the-art becomes basic requirement.”

Gill believes that in order for the United States of the future to have a strong economy and well-functioning society, today’s students need to develop a capacity to deal with this increasingly complex world.

“Their education must help them learn how to learn, how to problem-solve,” she said. “Education, if it has the support and belief of the community it serves, and strong and talented teachers, can create a better future for each individual student and for society as a whole.”

Gill, who says her main objective as a teacher is to help her students learn to make good decisions, also hopes that in her role as Kentucky’s Teacher of the Year, she will provide encouragement to other teachers.

“There is no perfect way of teaching,” she said. “Every teacher, no matter who they are or what they teach, struggles with trying to reach every student. Teaching is a demanding job, and there are many ways to do it well. I want to tell teachers, ‘Don’t get discouraged. Keep trying, keep learning, and keep doing what you think is best.’”

Gill said that every teacher has to develop a teaching style that works with his or her own personality. One word that sums up her personality is enthusiastic. She teaches about center of gravity, for instance, by balancing on a table at what her students consider an impossible angle. She’s the first one in the classroom to jump on a spinning platform and demonstrate centrifugal force, and she changes song lyrics and uses movie scenes to get her message across.

Gill’s classes are fun, but not at the expense of learning. “I try to make my class not just hands-on but minds-on,” she said. “In my classes, the students are respected, valued, supported, and busy.”

Gill said she frequently asks questions like, “Why did you…?,” “How do you know…?,” and “What evidence do you have…?” If they struggle, she helps lead her students with these guiding questions.

“I assess what they know and what they need to learn, but I try not to simply give them the answer,” she said. “I have found that if my students are developing skills and using them to do real things, then they are engaged, and they enjoy what they are doing.”

Gill earned her master’s degree in education from the University of Kentucky and Rank 1 certification from Georgetown College. She has honed her craft by attending national workshops on research-based teachings methods, like The Physics Modeling Workshop based on David Hestenes’ research out of Arizona State University.

“I spent eight weeks in Washington, D.C., learning about the Modeling Method,” she said, “and what I learned greatly improved my teaching. I have also been fortunate to be around some great teachers—not the least of which is my very own husband.”

Her husband, Scot Gill ’91, teaches physics at Tates Creek High School, and both Gills have previously won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Both have also had students who won a national math and physics challenge sponsored by Insight Communications and ESPN.

Gill and her husband regularly discuss physics education. “It is wonderful having a spouse who understands what you are dealing with in your job,” she said. “Many physics teachers don’t have anyone to talk to about what they are trying to do with their classes. I have someone awesome to talk to every day.”

The Gills both graduated from Transylvania with double majors in mathematics and physics. They met, in fact, in an Introduction to Computer Science class taught by former math and computer science professor James E. Miller.

“We are really a perfect match for each other,” she said. “I am certain no one else could understand us half as well as we understand each other.”

A presenter at Modeling Instruction Program workshops, a member of North Central Physics Alliance, and the American Association of Physics Teachers, Gill’s other honors include an Engaging Kids to Learn grant, the Ashland Teacher Achievement Award, and two Fayette County Merit of Excellence Awards.

“In addition to professional development, my teaching method requires persistent planning and continual evaluation and encouragement of each student,” she said. “But it’s so worth it.”

– Lori-Lyn Hurley

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