|Mr. Nicholas Leonard (right) with Dr. Christopher Hughes|
On November 6, 2018, we had the honor of hosting the 2018 JMU High School Physics Teacher of the Year, Mr. Nicholas Leonard, for a day to tour our department and talk about his experience as a physics educator with faculty, students, and even alumni!
Mr. Leonard received his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2002. Before becoming a teacher, he worked at a semiconductor processing facility. After leaving the company, he spent about a year looking for a job before he accepted a teaching position for chemistry at Highland Springs High School in Henrico County, Virginia. After a year there, he moved to Monacan High School in Chesterfield County, where he has remained to this day. Like at Highland Springs, he began with chemistry and then in 2010 he began to teach physics classes as well. As of current, Mr. Leonard now primarily teaches physics.
Mr. Leonard talked with us about some of what he’s learned as an educator, from how physics and chemistry education is different to how he tries to get students to understand material and also things that can be frustrating as a teacher. While Mr. Leonard first started teaching physics out of some necessity, he cites his primary reason for now teaching only physics classes being that it’s much easier, and more fun, to actually demonstrate to students what he wants them to investigate. He also mentions that, when students have trouble understanding particular concepts, it’s useful to help them identify relationships and patterns with what’s going on, and making use of visual aids is often a very useful tool for these purposes. His largest pet peeve with the job is just when students won’t ask him questions. Mr. Leonard says that questions are helpful in identifying where he can improve as an educator, and also where he may need to revisit a concept or slow down the pace so that everyone understands clearly what’s going on in class.
We also got to hear a bit of how Mr. Leonard tries to structure his class, and key to this is his core philosophy behind teaching. As Mr. Leonard says himself, “I want to teach so I’m having fun!” and this entails a lot of interaction with the students, both in projects and in class structure. A typical class utilizes a small demo as the beginning of discussion, and students are encouraged to discuss and ask questions about what’s going on with the demonstration. There may be some smaller notes or formulae to copy down, but most of what happens is really a conversation about the subject at hand, whether it be projectile motion or energy. When it comes to projects, Mr. Leonard tries to engage students with projects that focus on applying the skills learned in the classroom with design and construction principles in engineering. Whether it be designing a cart so that it travels a certain distance or achieves a certain distance within a certain time, to having students create towers out of popsicle sticks and marshmallow launchers to lay siege to said towers, students are expected to work collaboratively both among themselves and with Mr. Leonard to apply the knowledge they’ve gained from class.
|Mr. Leonard with Jack Clabough (left)|