James Martin - Faculty Profile

James Martin, Upper School Science and Robotics

What are your roles here at school, in and out of the classroom?
At SCH, I have the opportunity to wear a number of different hats. I teach physics in the Upper School Science Department to students in the 9th, 11th, and 12th grades. I mentor the K-12 robotics program, working with all our FLL, FTC, and FRC teams, involving many weekend hours of building, testing, traveling, and competing with students and robots. I am also the head coach of the Middle School ice hockey team and an assistant coach for the Upper School ice hockey team. Additionally, I serve as one of the lead advisors to the senior class. Recently, I had the pleasure of chaperoning SCH’s first CEL trip to the UAE. The experience for both the students and the faculty was fantastic; exposure to a different culture, in a unique climate, offering cutting-edge technology and tremendous economic opportunity was truly a great experience.

What are the greatest challenges in teaching your subject and how are you addressing these?
Physics is a challenging subject for even the best of students—it’s highly dependent upon a strong grasp of math, requires both critical and abstract thinking, and is often very conceptual, since students are currently unable to see or touch particles, quantum mechanics, or nano-materials, for example. However physics, like most sciences, is best understood by actively participating in directed experimentation and discovery.

The inquiry-based learning encouraged by SCH’s physics curriculum allows our students to actively experiment, arrive at conclusions supported by data they’ve collected, and develop strong critical-thinking skills. Using the technology provided by the Science Department and the Innovation and Technology Department, we are able to experiment daily, capturing data live. Students see, right before their eyes, the relationships between the physical phenomena and the mathematical equation describing it.

There are also a number of online resources that we use: applets and simulations to review concepts, experiments, view particles, quantum interactions, and nano-materials, among other impossible-to-visualize realms of the natural world. Students can spend time exploring the simulated theoretical outcomes of experiments that are not currently, and may never be, possible in a laboratory.

All of my physics classes use digital textbooks. One of them is an online textbook and the other is a stand-alone program that runs on each student’s laptop. This, and the use of individual podcast lessons, allows students to read, hear, and watch their lessons, and have access to online help and extra examples and problems. They can pause, rewind, and rewatch parts of a lesson that they may not understand (at least I hope they do that). My classes also employ online homework systems in which the students enter their weekly problem sets online. The website grades each problem instantly and provides the student with instant feedback or help. Obviously, there is nothing like practice, putting pencil-to-paper, and in our case that means problems, plenty of problems. Students are required to provide proof of their digital homework on paper. With all these resources, students become confident about performing research, experimenting with new ideas, tackling never-before-seen problems, and working together in groups to accomplish a larger goal.

What are your greatest satisfactions in teaching science or in teaching more generally?
The relationships that I build with students are of great satisfaction to me. I also get great satisfaction from working with my colleagues; it is very inspiring to be around such intelligent people all day long. I am constantly challenged to perform outside my comfort zone and for this I am grateful.

I’m obsessed with the future; I’d like it to be here, now. I hope for a bright future for the species and the planet, but I believe that the future will require tremendous advancement in science and technology. This bright future, with its new technology, new medicines, and new problems, will come from young minds educated in math and science. It will be their curiosities that get explored, their inventions that get funded, and their challenges that get met. I can only hope that I am inspiring my students to be critical thinkers who are aware of the universe around them and the limitless capability of the human species. It gives me satisfaction to know that I am introducing students to the principles of the universe, principles of technology, and the changes that will surely occur in all our futures.

In what ways have you incorporated the principles of CEL into your classes?
This is a difficult one for me to answer. I think that physics and science, in general, should to be taught in a traditional manner. By this I do not mean passively, with boring lectures and cookbook labs. Science has always been an active pursuit by those who practice and have practiced it. That’s the way we teach our science classes—actively. It is crucially important that students learn the fundamentals of the topic they are studying. It is very difficult to “design” a new mechanics when the one described by Newton and Galileo, and then corrected by Einstein, has allowed us to make incredible predictions about distant stars, galaxies, and planets, control our entire space program, and underpin our GPS systems. Students must learn the basics before they can create something meaningful. 

That being said, I have been able to incorporate some elements of design thinking into my curricula. During the second semester of our Physics II elective, students interview, brainstorm, design, prototype, test, and refine products for members of the United Cerebral Palsy community (ucpphila.org) in Chestnut Hill. Students use their knowledge of physics and engineering (many principles of which we go through) to create the most useful product. This opportunity challenges students to think outside themselves and produce something useful for others less able than they are. It is a very rewarding experience.

Even if your students don’t choose physics or science as a career, what skills or attitudes from its study do you hope they carry with them?
While I would love to impart my fascination with the universe, the subatomic realm, and the future of our species to as many students as possible, I realize that many will not continue in physics and science. I want them to know that physics is so much more than just learning about the universe, the quantum world, or the physics of frisbee flight. It involves and helps foster critical thinking, problem solving, spatial reasoning, communication, teamwork, attention span, and confidence. It plays a part in controlling and limiting the technology we all use; eventually the wires between transistors on computer chips will become so small that electrons will not stay on them. We will have reached the quantum limit and will have to invent a new form of computer, a new form of digital information manipulation. It is my hope that I can educate students so that the following prediction becomes untrue:

“We have arranged a global civilization in which the most crucial elements—transportation, communications, agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment, and even the key democratic institution of voting—profoundly depend on science and technolgy.                  

“We have also arranged things so that a very small percentage of the planet’s population understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

– Carl Sagan, Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
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