“Physics,” says longtime physics teacher Stewart Pierson, “constantly requires you to figure out the rules of this world you are in and to figure out how to apply those rules to solve problems.”

Since almost every student at Rivers takes a course in physics, Pierson hopes every one of them finds the subject as fascinating as he does. He admits that’s a lofty goal. Nevertheless, he is convinced that everyone who takes physics will benefit from the experience in critically important ways.

“Those with an affinity and passion for physics can move onto the sophisticated concepts of Advanced Physics and AP Physics,” he says. “But even the students who take introductory-level physics get the benefit of having gone through the process of solving unfamiliar problems. Physics forces you to solve a succession of challenging problems. It hands you that practice every day in every test and every lab. Being good at problem solving is a fundamental life skill.”

Those who do go on to take higher level physics courses find Pierson eager and ready to lead them into an deep exploration of the complex workings of the universe.

Over the years, the AP Physics courses at Rivers have evolved, moving from non-calculus-based classes to calculus-based classes. Pierson is excited by the change.

“Connecting the two subjects allows students to bring their growing math skills into their physics work. That physics relies on math is probably obvious, but when you bring calculus into it, it raises the game. Students quickly come to see the power of calculus. Calculus and physics working together gives you the ability to solve problems in the real world that algebra can’t. It allows us to explore physics at a deeper level and tackle more interesting problems.”

This exploration happens through classroom work and labs. During the labs, students engage in hands-on activities that help them understand complex concepts. During the section on forces, for example, students will physically work with pulleys, pendulums, rolling carts and even swinging bowling balls as they study the many forces at work in the world around them.

“We try to find a good balance between hands-on work and diving deeply into the textbooks, which students need to do in order to develop the depth of the math that they need to know,” says Pierson.

Not everyone will find physics fascinating … but I certainly do. So I try to help students see what I find fascinating about it — to view it as a way to understand the world." — Stewart Pierson, physics teacher

Although the students in AP Physics are up for the challenge, Pierson acknowledges that the material is hard. To keep his students engaged, he starts each class by asking one science question that the students will discuss for 10 minutes. The questions can be as esoteric as “Do we have free will?” or as practical as “How does a refrigerator work?”

“Instead of just jumping into homework, we start with a free-flowing conversation about what we know and what we think,” says Pierson. “We spend a lot of time hypothesizing an answer, and the discussions are great. It gives us a chance to relax and just enjoy thinking about the world and how it works so that we can take that energy and go back to studying physics.”

By the time the course comes to an end, Pierson hopes his students will have increased their enthusiasm for science, increased their confidence in their analytical skills, and developed pride in their ability to persevere. That pride and that confidence, he says, “will make them stronger people in the face of adversity in their futures.”

*Photos by John Hurley; Videos by Stephen Porter*