Q&A with Cindy Willett, Physics and Math Teacher at The Wilberforce School

Interview by Taylor Smith | Photographs courtesy of The Wilberforce School

Describe your work and educational background before your entrance into teaching.

Immediately after receiving my undergraduate degree in computer science, I started working on ground system processing and satellite computer designs for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in Colorado in the late 1980s. While working on various space-related projects, I fell in love with designing satellites, but I wanted to work on remote sensing systems in the earth sciences. After working in defense contracting for five years, I moved to England to study ocean physics and satellite oceanography at the University of Southampton. After many adventures on the English Channel, I came back to complete my PhD under Dr. George Born at the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research (CCAR), using satellites to study ocean physics funded by NASA. Ironically, after graduating, I went back to work on a Navy satellite that uses radar altimetry to measure the ocean’s sea surface height. Finally, when The Wilberforce School started their high school in 2014, they needed someone who could teach physics and had experience using MATLAB (Matrix Laboratory Programing). My daughter was attending the Wilberforce lower school at the time, which is how they knew of me, and they asked if I would consider teaching at the high school since I had studied physics (oceanic and atmospheric), and I had experience with MATLAB.

What is MATLAB, how is it used in physics and math class, and how do some of your recent students use it in physics projects?

MATLAB (short for MATrix LABoratory) is a programming language that runs on a laptop, and it is frequently used in industry and academics for numerical computation and analysis. For example, I used it in graduate school to analyze ocean basin waves, ocean-atmospheric boundary interactions, sea surface temperature, and sea surface height.

Students in the first three months of their junior year learn how to use MATLAB to solve physics problems and animate physics environments. MATLAB enables students to see and experience the integration of physics and calculus. This especially helps the students who are more visual learners. Students continue to program in MATLAB in their second year of physics, and they also use it in their second year of calculus to help graph and visualize multiple solutions of differential equations and linear algebra.

Examples of three vastly different final junior physics projects that used MATLAB to study physics concepts chosen by the student include interfacing MATLAB with a home-built sonar for a student who loves to fish, building a music tuner based on the shape of a sound wave by students who are in a rock band together, and a study of air drag on the shape of a rocket by students interested in aerospace engineering.

In what ways do you see your teaching role as that of a student or career advisor?

The experiences that I had before teaching at Wilberforce help me to weave stories about computer science, aerospace engineering, oceanography, and atmospheric physics throughout my lesson plan. As students hear more about the connections between math, physics, and these different fields that I get excited about, they are more motivated to engage with the material in the classroom. The classroom stories also help the students who are unsure of what they want to do, and a particular story may spark an interest in any one of these fields. I have learned, over the past three years of teaching, that exposing students to how I have used these subjects throughout my career and why I am enthusiastic is as important as teaching the fundamentals. Conversations about potential career paths or university choices are a natural product of these stories, once students realize they are able to master the fundamental material.

Describe the history and philosophy behind the Trinity curriculum and how it is used to shape your yearly coursework.

The high school Trinity curriculum was developed by two engineering professors at Notre Dame University who wanted to help students truly understand the why behind what they are learning in all subjects. In this curriculum, the goal is to elevate math and science to the same standards as the humanities within a classical Christian framework; thus, every student takes calculus and physics in their junior and senior years. At Wilberforce, our philosophy is ‘A Community of Learners’ built on the scaffolding of the Trinity curriculum. Students seem to be infected by their teachers’ enthusiasm for each subject as our goal is to help the students engage on a deeper level with the material, not just memorization. One last aspect of the Trinity curriculum is to put all teachers in one office. In the faculty room, though the students do not see it, spontaneous conversations break out ranging from the historical development of the definition of beauty to the scientific issues of making the perfect cold-brewed coffee.

You believe that there is “no such thing as a non-math kid.” How do you enable students to breakthrough their potential insecurities when it comes to high school science coursework?

At Wilberforce, we take this philosophy very seriously because every student gets to take two years of calculus. Each student learns math differently, though some students are convinced that they are not able to master math concepts. We math and science teachers come alongside the students to help them understand their learning style — visual, auditory, or kinetic — to help them better engage with the material. Frequently, these students are delighted to find they can understand and solve problems. Writing programs in MATLAB to solve problems also helps students work with the material with a tangible goal that also gives a visual solution. An example of this is an assignment in the second semester of physics to animate shooting a basketball into a hoop. The students are focused on the end product, and so learning the basics equations of motion and necessary MATLAB programming are merely stepping stones. Enabling students to engage with the math in all these different ways helps each to thrive in our accelerated curriculum from Trinity, and gives them the confidence to tackle even very high-level math.