Commonwealth Journal

March 21, 2014

SWHS teacher making physics cool for students

by Chris Harris
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset — Dr. Sheldon Cooper of “The Big Bang Theory” isn’t the only figure out there that’s helping to make physics cool.

Kyle Curry is doing a pretty good job of it right here in Somerset — and with startling results.

Curry, a third-year Physics instructor at Southwestern High School, is youthful and energetic, appearing at first glance to be perhaps one of his students rather than their teacher.

Indeed, it was hard to separate one from the other at Friday’s “Physics Phair” at Southwestern. The initiative by Curry sought to introduce county middle school students to physics concepts via the high school students themselves — the teenagers held demonstrations in breakout groups throughout the school’s gymnasium and the junior high students would move around from station to station to learn about something science-y ... and very cool. It almost seemed as though all that was missing was a functioning “Doctor Who” TARDIS.

Just take a look at the schedule: The demos listed have names like “Lightsabers, Lasers, & Science Fiction: Physics of Energy transfer,” and “The Tater Launcher.” Students could see the expanding properties of heat at work thanks to a lit blowtorch, watch fireworks go off to represent energy transfer, or even take a ride on a hovercraft and literally float in the air.

If it sounds like a fun time, Curry would be happy to hear it.

“It turns out across the nation that in all the science classes, physics enrollment is the lowest compared to chemistry and biology in high school,” he said. “It was the opposite of that back in the 1950s because of the cold war; there was a big push for everyone to go into physics. Anymore, there’s a big push to go into the medical field and engineering — but we definitely still need physicists as well.”

As such, Curry’s made it his goal to get more kids interested in physics — the study of matter and motion — and at a younger age. A big part of that is making it less scary.

“I think it’s the misconception that physics is really, really hard,” said Curry of why more students don’t take the course. “Most people think of physics and they think of Albert Einstein and relativity and about space-time and gravity. That’s not really what you study in high school. You just study basic aspects such as speed and velocity, things like that.

“Everyone thinks it’s a lot of math,” he added, “but math helps tell the story of physics but there are a lot of conceptual ideas in physics as well. I guess people think you have to be really good in math to succeed in physics and that’s not necessarily true.”

Curry’s efforts have paid off. This past school year, Curry saw all 12 of his Advanced Placement (AP) Physics students pass the brutal AP Physics exam — 100 percent of the class.

That kind of pass rate is rare, to say the least. As an example, last year the Associated Press reported that the rate of students passing AP exams was going up — and the new, more successful number was one in five receiving a passing score of 3 on their AP exam (the scale is 1-5). That was up from fewer than 12 percent of students earning a passing score a decade earlier.

So to go 12 for 12 in a particular class is a stunning achievement for anyone — let alone a relatively new teacher such as Curry.

“It’s rigorous,” said Curry. “Not to offend anybody, but the AP curriculum is more rigorous than any college curriculum I’ve seen. I’ve studied at Western Kentucky University, the University of Kentucky, and Eastern Kentucky University. When I compare their introductory physics classes with what I have to teach in AP, we just go so much deeper, so much faster and cover so much more content. ... AP not only prepares students for college, it actually over-prepares them.”

If anything, it’s the blood, sweat, tears, and elbow grease that allowed him and his Southwestern students to accomplish that goal.

“I get to school at roughly 6:20 in the morning and I don’t leave until 5:30 sometimes 6 p.m.,” he said. “Last year, at least seven of my students stayed with me after school. Even if I didn’t help them one-on-one, they stayed and they really did work on physics.

“A lot of them weren’t your traditional honor students, they were just general level students, but they worked really hard and they handled the challenge and succeeded on the exam,” he added. “So I’ve got to put a lot of emphasis on the kids. They did an excellent job.”

In his first year, Curry still had a high success rate — 13 students out of 19 passing. School officials are confident he can continue producing positive results.

“Today’s Physics Phair manifests Mr. Curry’s passion for his content and dedication to learning for all students and our community,” said Mardi Montgomery, Advanced Placement Coordinator and director of Next-Generation Programs for Pulaski County Schools. “Extended learning opportunities such as this ignite an appetite for increased rigor, science, technology, engineering and math — enabling our students in any walk of life. 

“Just in his short tenure, Mr. Curry has already accomplished mastery level instruction exhibited by his successful Advanced Placement Physics’ pass rate and last year’s pass rate was 100 percent,” she continued. “Pulaski County School System is blessed with outstanding Advanced Placement Instructors, and Mr. Curry exhibits the high quality and exceptional characteristics of our successful team of educators.”

As a recognition of his success, Curry was asked to do a presentation in February in Atlanta, Ga. at the 2014 Southern Regional Forum by the College Board organization, which develops AP courses and exams.

“That was just an absolute honor,” he said. “Our whole school district made the AP Honor Roll for the second consecutive time.”

It’s a national achievement given to only a couple hundred or so school districts across the United States, generally speaking, and one that sets the Pulaski County School District apart — even among their peers.

“It was enlightening,” he said. “There were between seven to 10 other states at the forum. What I learned was that our school district was leaps and bounds ahead of any other school district I saw at that conference.

“I thought we were doing all right,” he added. “I thought we were just doing what we needed to do. I came back with my eyes open as to what’s going on in those other states and how our kids compare to their kids. It’s no competition. Or kids are honestly prepared more than any of the other districts I saw there.”

And thanks to events like the Physics Phair, Curry intends to make sure Pulaski County keeps rising to the top.