Following a mind-bending lecture by Dr. Katie Mack, the Stephen Hawking Chair @perimeterinstitute, we were able to have lunch and discuss her work on #darkmatter. Being able to participate in #einsteinplus has been an incredible and memorable experience. #EPlus2022 pic.twitter.com/FVFaaqI5eS
— Brittany Johnson Burns (@brittjohnsonb_) July 9, 2022
An ‘O-wing flyer’ made of paper zips across the classroom.
A cellphone on the end of a string spins rapidly in the air.
Laser pointer light – bisected by a strand of hair – makes diffraction patterns on a wall.
These scenes of controlled chaos are all demonstrations designed to teach fundamental concepts in physics, using only materials found in a dollar store. The creators of these DIY science demos are high school teachers from across Canada and around the world, united by their dedication to improving their pedagogical craft. Together, they are discovering new ways to engage the minds of young people in the complex world of modern physics.
This is EinsteinPlus.
Held in person at Perimeter Institute for the first time since 2019 (the program carried on virtually over the last two years), this week-long intensive workshop provides attendees with innovative ways to teach quantum physics, special relativity, and cosmology. Essentially, EinsteinPlus offers an interactive toolkit that teachers take home to use with their students. These tools include lesson plans, crafts, and hands-on modules, many of which are invented by the participants themselves over the course of the program, with input from expert facilitators. It’s a shot of adrenalin to a high school physics curriculum.
But it’s also about the experience.
“This is Disney World for physics teachers,” says Tanya Skelhorn, a teacher from Nova Scotia who participated in this year’s workshop. The variety of hands-on demonstrations, lab tours, and conversations with experts at the cutting edge of physics research make EinsteinPlus a truly immersive event.
Whimsical dollar-store science projects are combined with in-depth keynote talks from experts Katie Mack, Perimeter’s Hawking Chair in Cosmology and Science Communication, who discussed her research on dark matter with the participants. The teachers then joined Mack for lunch, allowing them to dig into the topic, ask questions, toss around teaching strategies, and simply socialize.
The interactive nature of the program makes it special. “Instead of hearing about resources and pedagogy techniques, we experience them in practice,” says Brazilian teacher and EinsteinPlus attendee Felipe Novaes.
What’s more, the mingling of educators from around the world — this year’s program included teachers from 10 countries — means everyone involved gets a dose of fresh ideas. It also builds connections that last beyond the week-long workshop. EinsteinPlus alumni often maintain friendships with their colleagues for years after the event itself, in a growing network of physics teachers striving to help their students engage with science.
“The opportunities to build relationships, during and after EinsteinPlus, with colleagues from around the world is priceless. If I could, I would come back every year,” says Ontario teacher Kieran Faw. “Perimeter Institute establishes a safe learning environment where we can get messy and try new teaching pedagogies that at first may be uncomfortable.”
And that’s the whole idea. Getting educators out of their comfort zone opens up opportunities to grapple with difficult topics in new ways. In fun ways. In ways that make the abstract concrete.
Dave Fish, Perimeter’s teacher-in-residence and a facilitator for EinsteinPlus, says the program is valuable because it gives teachers the opportunity to deepen their understanding of physics concepts and broaden their instructional approaches.
“This year, we had a fantastic group of teachers who will be returning to their classrooms inspired by spending quality time with other like-minded teachers and listening to keynote speakers Asimina Arvanitaki and Katie Mack. But inspired is not sufficient,” Fish says. “These teachers also go back equipped with classroom-ready resources, materials, and a network of other teachers to lean on.”
For many teachers, it’s a pivotal, watershed moment in their approach to pedagogy.
Sarah Torrie, one of this year’s attendees, put it this way: “PI’s EinsteinPlus is the best professional development a science teacher could have. I participated as a new teacher in 2006 and again 16 years later. This place and this program continue to inform and inspire my practice. The combination of pedagogy and physics is inspiring.”
Ultimately, it is the students these teachers go home to teach who benefit most from EinsteinPlus. Armed with new tools, the teachers can light the spark of curiosity in those students and propel the next generation on to new discoveries.
Special thanks to the Power Corporation of Canada and the Bosch Community Fund for their support of Perimeter’s teacher programs.