Texas Physics Teacher Wins AAAS Education Prize for his Bookish Approach to Science

Dr. H’s students not only learn physics, they write physics books. After a handful of lectures, George “Dr. H” Hademenos instructed his teenage pupils to author children’s books about energy, weather, and other subjects in physics. For his inventive approach at Richardson High School in Texas, Hademenos won AAAS’s 2011 Leadership in Science Education Prize for High School Teachers.

“I told the class, you might think you know something,” explained Hademenos, “but you’ve got to really understand it in order to explain it to a small child or your grandma.” Towards that goal, teams of students created and illustrated story lines followed by hands-on activities to relay key physics concepts in a way a fourth-grader could understand. For example, in the students’ impressively illustrated book on weather, three soccer-playing characters inquire how the thunderstorm interrupting their game formed. A fictional boy in glasses explains that changing atmospheric pressure can cause thunder and lightning, and the chapter ends with a do-it-yourself experiment involving homemade rainbows.

 

George Hademenos uses a bed of nails in a classroom demonstration of the principles of pressure. [Photo courtesy of Richard Rejino]

George Hademenos uses a bed of nails in a classroom demonstration of the principles of pressure.
[Photo courtesy of Richard Rejino]

“The students had heard me talk about each topic, and they had done some problems, but that didn’t mean they were ready to write,” Hademenos said. “When I assigned them their projects, they began to ask more questions.”

 

To inspire the students, a children’s book writer visited the classroom and gave tips on writing for children. And once the books were published online, the students presented their projects at a science event held at the local public library. Hademenos and some of the students published a paper describing the book project in the journal The Physics Teacher, so that other instructors might implement the project in classrooms around the country.

In an amiable Texas accent, Hademenos described the efficacy of hands-on activities, such as the one in which he lies on a bed of nails to illustrate principles of pressure. “Sometimes when he talks about a concept his voice changes,” says 17-year-old Becca Mishler, one of Hademenos’ former students who may major in science in college. “It’s cheesy,” she said, “but it actually gets us excited.”

Clearly, Hademenos has impressed the judges of the $1000 annual AAAS teaching prize, which is supported by an endowment established by AAAS member Dr. Edith D. Neimark to recognize a high school teacher who has contributed significantly to the AAAS goal of advancing science education by developing an innovative and demonstrably effective classroom strategy, activity, or program.

“Teachers are being asked to do more while resources are being decreased. This prize is a nice way to acknowledge the good deal of work that educators do in the classroom,” explained Ted Willard, a project director for AAAS’s science literacy initiative, Project 2061, and one of the judges. “The book project taught kids about an important aspect of science,” he said. “You need to understand the fundamental concepts very well in order to build on them later.”

Further, the transfer of knowledge is a fundamental component of science. In his former career as a researcher with a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Dallas, followed by a visiting assistant professorship at the UCLA Medical School, Hademenos published frequently. “I told the students, when you publish a book or a report, no matter how small, you will feel such a sense of pride when you look at it,” he said.

Hademenos left the bench for the classroom 11 years ago—a move that has been met with awards, including ones from PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) and the Science Teachers Association of Texas last year. He was proctoring a test when he learned he had won the AAAS prize. “It caught me totally off guard,” Hademenos said. “The principal announced it to the class, and I said ‘oh my gosh,’ and then the whole class clapped and their clapping just meant so much to me.”

Download free copies of the physics books written by Dr. H’s students.

Links

Get more information on the AAAS Leadership in Science Education Prize for High School Teachers.

Read about the 2010 prize winner.

Learn more about supporting AAAS programs and awards.