Saturday, March 25, 2017

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‘Physics First’ Program at SHS Proves Boon to Understanding Math, Says Dr. Daniela Riser

It was an apropos, but painful, lesson I learned about physics early on the morning of March 2. Entering a local park with my mate for our daily walk, I kicked a stone off the path, missed it, my sneaker caught on the asphalt, and down I went. Sir Isaac Newton’s “first law of motion” states an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Hence, as I fell I was in motion and would have kept going through the proverbial hole to China but was stopped by the asphalt sidewalk. Physics 101! Both knees took the brunt of the fall, but luckily, nothing broken. A little blood, scabs, and soreness, but my pride hurt the most. I got up, dusted myself off, and proceeded four times around the oval for a mile and a-third. Go home, shower, dress, get in the car, and head to Secaucus for my interview with Dr. Daniela Riser, Supervisor of Science, Family/Consumer Science, Business, and Art at Secaucus High School. The topic? PHYSICS!

I was intrigued by the topic following Dr. Riser’s presentation about the new “Physics First” program in its inaugural school year at SHS. She gave a brief talk on the subject at the meeting of the Secaucus Board of Education on February 16. I followed her as she explained through PowerPoint graphs and words on the progress of the students in the Physics First program, but sat there in Huber Street School, wondering, “What is physics?” She briefly explained that as well in her presentation, but I only got the most rudimentary concept of the science. I struggled through algebra and geometry in high school and can still remember the smell of the formaldehyde as I dissected a poor frog in biology, the only science course I had to take in high school. When I thought of physics, Albert Einstein, James Watson, and Francis Crick came to mind (or my genius older brother, the science guy). Many years out of high school, we decided it was time to be enlightened about the subject that Dr. Riser was absolutely passionate about. An email here and there, interview set, and that fateful morning of March 2, a Thursday, arrived.

Is this physics? We can’t get in the high school entrance — our arm in motion stopped by the locked door! Security guard Bob Ulrich (we are distant relations) sees us, buzzes us in, and we’re immediately thrust into advertising the great merits of SHS by its principal, Dr. Bob, who is speaking to prospective residents with high school-age children. Bob introduces us to the pleasant couple, and we tell them they could not go wrong by sending their children to SHS with its great courses and even better faculty and administrators. We then sign in, say hello to office staff—Vicki, Debi and Carolann— and are whisked away by Dr. Riser to her nearby office before Dr. Bob has us do another commercial!

First things first: We quickly learn that Daniela Riser has been a teacher in the Secaucus district for seventeen years, and she started in the middle school. She lives in Rutherford with her husband, Tom, and their two children, Emma, 5, and Eddie, 2. The proud mom shows us a photo of two very cute kids! Daniela is originally from Bloomfield. She received her bachelor’s degree from Stockton State, her master’s from Rutgers-Newark, and her doctorate from Columbia University. At age forty, she’s very accomplished and always looking ahead not onlyto her career prospects, but also the educational opportunities for the students of Secaucus High School. “I’m happy here,” Dr. Riser said. “My goal is to help students achieve.” She is extremely proud that Physics First is finally being taught at SHS, a goal she and other faculty have been working on for several years. Physics First is an algebra-based program that is taught “first,” before the traditionally-taught-first chemistry and biology. SHS students are now required to take physics in their freshmen year, and then biology and chemistry in their sophomore and junior years (and also advanced physics if they are in the STEM Academy). Dr. Riser explained at the school board meeting last month and in our interview that students who take the physics course then have a greater understanding of mathematics. Even students who previously did poorly in math usually “get it” after taking physics. The cycle continues, she said, because students who understand math will then grasp chemistry, and so on.

“Physics is the basis of every science,” stressed Dr. Riser, whose field of expertise is actually biology. She noted that Dr. Bob and the school board have been very supportive of the physics program. Out of six science teachers at SHS, four are certified to teach physics. They are: Peter Newman, Raphael Pastor, Dr. John Ennis and Debra Kalapodakis. (The other science teachers are Denise McKenna, biology, and Luis Martinez, chemistry.) Math teacher Pavlina Zavorotnyaya is also certified to teach physics. Daniela took us to Mr. Pastor’s classroom where freshmen students were energetically at work solving physics equations. Some of the young students were sitting at desks, some were standing at bulletin board-type (chalkboards are tools of the past), others were in transit from desk to board, but all were intently busy at their work. We asked a young girl if she liked physics, and she readily replied that she did. It was refreshing to see this type of classroom, free-flowing and kinetic; one could feel the enthusiasm and energy. Mr. Pastor had a firm hand on the proceedings, however, as he gave the students problems to solve, keeping them focused on their tasks. One might say, this classroom was a real-life example of physics: the students in motion, stopped (in a good way) by their teacher’s direction. Or maybe we’re stretching the concept!

Dr. Riser explained that it’s difficult to find certified physics teachers because the majority of physicists go on to lucrative careers in engineering and other industries. “It is pretty rare that a physics major will choose to be a teacher. We were very lucky that some of our teachers chose to become certified in physics to make this Physics First program work.” Careers in engineering, architecture, medicine, and biotechnology (and education, hopefully) are just some of the job prospects students can aspire to following college. “We have a phenomenal engineering department at SHS,” remarked Dr. Riser. The supervisor explained, also, that, for instance, a teacher certified in chemistry can also teach environmental science, physical science and general science; or a biology teacher can also teach anatomy, environmental science, and general science, etc. “I’d love to see more science classes offered.” Dr. Riser commended the SHS faculty. “We have great teachers, knowledgeable teachers,” and again praised the support of the principal. “I work closely with Dr. Bob and other administrators.”

Following the visit to Mr. Pastor’s classroom, we returned to Dr. Riser’s office. Amanda Trombetta, Supervisor of Mathematics, ESL, World Language, and the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Academy stopped in briefly, and we glimpsed Athletic Director Charlie Voorhees jogging down the hall. We stopped off for a brief chat with Dr. John Ennis at his classroom door on our way to Pastor’s classroom. Riser hired Dr. Ennis in what can only be called a “coup” for Secaucus High School. Ennis graduated first in his class at Annapolis, the U.S. Naval Academy, and received his Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Yale University. Following a career in the telecommunications industry, Ennis decided he wanted to be a teacher. Fortunately, Dr. Ennis chose to begin his teaching career at Secaucus High School, and has been wowing students and staff alike for the past seven years. Down to earth and readily accessible, we could see the joy Dr. Ennis derived from his new-found career. Likewise, Raphael Pastor, low-key and involved, was totally immersed in his students’ discoveries. We also met math teacher Pavlina Zavorotnyaya in the hallway. She was positively bubbling over with enthusiasm over her students and the school in general.

We can see why Dr. Daniela Riser is “happy” at Secaucus High School!

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