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Illinois Physics Teacher Wins AAAS Education Award for Hands-On Lessons

Diane Riendeau

Physics teacher Diane Riendeau believes in “hands-on” science lessons, but she doesn’t think the hands need to be hers. Instead, her students at Deerfield High School are the ones who create the marshmallow guns, gel candles and stadium horns that demonstrate basic physics concepts. The projects are all part of the innovative teaching that made Riendeau the 2008 winner of AAAS’s Leadership in Science Education Prize for High School Teachers.

“The students need to do the demos, not me,” Riendeau said “The kids get the joy and excitement of pulling the tablecloth out from under the dishes or having the bowling ball come close to hitting them in the nose. It makes physics a more memorable experience.”

Riendeau’s “Make It, Take It, Teach It” program at the Deerfield, Ill., school gives students a chance to observe basic physics concepts such as reflection as they build a simple object like a kaleidoscope. But the program comes with a unique follow-up session. Students use their creations in their own demonstrations of the concept for their parents, who have to evaluate how well their student teachers delivered the lesson. The combination of hands-on learning and teaching by the students has raised physics comprehension and interest, according to data collected on the program.

Feedback from the parents has been positive, Riendeau said. “I hoped that when they saw the neat stuff the students brought home, they might look at the world through slightly different eyes,” she explained. “Perhaps they might start to see physics all around them.”

The annual AAAS teaching prize of $1000, supported by an endowment established by AAAS member Dr. Edith D. Neimark, recognizes 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.

Riendeau devised her three-step program with an eye to giving “the more creative students a way to excel in a science class” while luring others in with the science’s practical side. Projects like the marshmallow guns—which teach students about velocity—can end up as elaborately decorated and “named” creations, she said.

“They also try to adjust the design a bit once they see my gun. I have the longest barrel because I want them to learn that the long barrel will produce a faster marshmallow. It’s my secret weapon when we have our battle,” Riendeau joked.

Deerfield science department head Judi Luepke said the number of physics survey classes at the high school has doubled since Riendeau began teaching them, “as it has a reputation for being a fun and engaging class with reasonable expectations.”

Deefield High senior Nicole Shapiro said her parents “loved that they could get involved” when she brought home some of her projects from Riendeau’s class. “In my other classes my parents never know what is going on or what I am learning, but from these projects they were able to learn what I was learning.”

Riendeau entered college with hopes of becoming an engineer, but soon felt that the field didn’t offer “enough interpersonal interactions for me,” she recalled. “I found that halfway through my junior year I was ignoring my own homework so I could spend time helping others with their physics and math homework.”

Last year, Deerfield launched an ambitious new program to bring more physics classes to freshmen, ensuring that all students will leave the high school with some physics experience. As preparation for the program’s launch, Riendeau taught the “Make It, Take It, Teach It” program to her fellow teachers for use in their classrooms.

“I feel grateful for having Diane—a 20-year veteran—a step away to help us through our growing pains in the early years of our freshman program,” said Deerfield High science teacher Jaime Stasiorowski.

For Riendeau, an active member of the American Association of Physics Teachers, the expanded exposure to physics is a welcome change. “Years ago, physics was a course for the cream of the crop,” she said. “Only the best of the best got to it. That was a tragedy.”

“In this country there seems to be a myth that math and science are hard and only for nerds,” said Neimark, a professor emerita of psychology at Rutgers University, who noted that good physics teachers like Riendeau “are very rare.”

In this second year of the competition, the prize also includes a visit to the Shanghai International Forum on Science Literacy of Precollege Students, with expenses underwritten by the Shanghai Association for Science and Technology.

“This year we are very pleased that Diane’s accomplishments will also be recognized by educators abroad,” said Jo Ellen Roseman, director of Project 2061, AAAS’s science literacy initiative. “Improving science education is truly a global concern, and the generous invitation from our colleagues in Shanghai is testimony to that.”

Riendeau, who has worked with science teachers from Brazil, Slovenia, and Japan, said she “can’t wait” to meet with her Chinese colleagues. “I hope to get a chance to build some relationships with some passionate teachers.”

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