by Carolyn Arnold
Can physics and Broadway be connected? Yes, if you ask Kristen Record ’99 and two former students in her physics class at Bunnell High School in Stratford, Conn. The two, Nicole Laskowski ’12, and Nancy Laskowski ’12, are now enrolled at Fairfield University.
Record once challenged her former students to find scientific concepts at work in popular media. Nicole and Nancy came back with an example from one of the songs from the Broadway show Wicked entitled “Defying Gravity.” Since the girls had learned in their physics class that one can’t defy gravity, they came up with their own scientific equation: Physics + Wicked = Undefined.
This playful equation stayed on the white board of Record’s classroom for most of the school year. Record recalled that mock equation fondly because her students had found a way to connect their interests in theater with science. Conversely, the Laskowskis, now juniors at Fairfield, appreciated Record’s capacity to teach the principles of physics through the prism of everyday life.
The Laskowskis weren’t the only ones to recognize Record’s talents. In June, Record was one of 103 pre-collegiate teachers nationwide named by President Barack Obama to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. The award carries a $10,000 prize from the National Science Foundation, and includes an expenses-paid trip to Washington D.C., for the awards ceremony.
Nicole Laskowski, a communication and English major, admitted that neither she nor her sister were strong in science, “so it was wonderful to have her as our teacher.” When they signed up for honors physics they didn’t have the proper math prerequisites, so Record worked with both of them outside of class to ensure they understood the material.
Nancy Laskowski, an English and theatre major, described Record as an “awesome and patient teacher.” She recently took an astronomy course and was pleased to see that some of the things she learned in physics appeared again in college-level astronomy.
Record said, “I think most students walk into a physics class thinking it’s going to be really hard and not very interesting. There’s still a stereotype of the crazy white-haired guy in a lab coat.”
She sees it as a personal challenge to change preconceived notions about physics. “In my own teaching I try hard to look for new and interesting ways to teach a concept. It keeps things fresh. If I’m having fun, then hopefully my students are, too,” said Record.
This enthusiasm also extends beyond the classroom. For three summers, Record has conducted research in fuel cell development and hydrogen production at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., under an Academies Creative Teacher Scientists fellowship from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Preferring to stay busy, Record, who serves as a mentor in Fairfield’s Ignatian Residential College and is the president of the Mendelssohn Choir of Connecticut, said, “Having a summer off allows me to have the best of both worlds in that I have a career in teaching high school science, and I’ve been able to do research and be involved in other professional projects.”
As a teacher, Record talked about the need to challenge students. “I always want to encourage kids to be challenged. Just because you find something difficult doesn’t mean you can’t be successful in it.” Referring to Nancy and Nicole’s struggle with physics, Record said, “They started off thinking physics was difficult, but they were motivated and they ended up doing well. It was because of their hard work and willingness to take up a challenge, and that’s an important academic lesson to learn.”