Women in STEM: Dublin High School’s Katina Lewis on 25 Years of Bringing Physics to Life
DUBLIN, CA–2017 marks Ms. Katina Lewis’ 25th year teaching physics at Dublin High School. She joined Dublin High in February 1992, when a Physics teacher was needed in the middle of the school year, and the student body has been fortunate enough to have her here ever since.
Ms. Lewis grew up in Washington State, and earned a double major in math and science with a minor in German at the University of Puget Sound. She was a recipient of the Crystal Apple Award in 2015, along with Dublin High chemistry teacher Mrs. Jeanne Morgan.
I was thrilled and honored to be given the opportunity to sit down with this extraordinary teacher, who continues to share her passion for physics with students and bring her remarkable energy to the classroom everyday.
Neha Harpanhalli: Oftentimes, we have a memorable experience or a mentor who steers us towards a certain field of study. What influenced you to take up physics? When did you realize that it was your passion?
Katina Lewis: “I’ve always liked math, ever since I was little. My dad was the kind of person who would ask me to figure out how much tax was going to be on the bill whenever we went out. And if I could do it correctly, he’d sometimes buy me a little treat.
When I was a junior in high school, I was an exchange student in Germany, where I struggled with a lot of courses, and the language barrier made things difficult. I could do physics because it’s just applied math…and the formulas are all practically the same no matter what country you’re in, as long as you understand what each letter stands for. So I think it was something I could be successful at, during a very trying time.
“When I came back to the United States, I decided to take physics as a senior….and my teacher was very sexist. He just believed that girls couldn’t do anything, and I’m too stubborn to let anyone tell me no. I was like, “Wait a minute, I found something I was interested in and I thought I was pretty good at it, and you’re telling me I can’t?” That just motivated me even more.
“I actually went to a community college for a while…community colleges are awesome because they don’t have classes of 200…it was a class of 20 to 25 people and the professors there took me under their wing. I later went to the University of Puget Sound, which they chose for me.”
Harpanhalli: Physics opens up a horizon of career opportunities. What sparked your interest in teaching, rather than pursuing a career in industry?
Lewis: “I’ve always wanted to teach. When I was five or six, I’d line up all my teddy bears on my bed facing my little blackboard and teach them how to add and subtract….it was very clear from early on that I was going to be a teacher. When I learned more about physics in college, I grew really interested in a subfield called particle astrophysics (which is studying the nature of the universe through these tiny particles that most people have never heard of). And I always thought I would get my PhD and teach at a college…but I was always going to teach, it was never about research or industry. Teaching was just who I was.”
Harpanhalli: Why did you choose to teach at the high school level?
Lewis: “I thought that I could have a bigger impact as a high school teacher, and that I would enjoy it more. It’s about the breadth of knowledge that you get to share…the higher up you go, the more specialized your teaching has to become, and it just seemed a better fit for me to do high school as opposed to college or university.”
Harpanhalli: Students often fail to realize the importance and the relevance of physics. What do you think contributes to this perspective? Why is it so crucial for schools to emphasize physics early on?
Lewis: “Of all the sciences, physics is the oldest, and explains the most everyday phenomenon. It’s just trying to explain everything that you see around you. And I think from that aspect, it makes it really important for everyone just to have a fundamental idea of….like, why should you wear your seatbelt? You should wear your seatbelt because if you’re not, your body still has the forward momentum of your car and you will continue through the windshield if you don’t.
“The reason that students are turned off from physics is because the more advanced it gets, the more mathematical it becomes. And students are turned off from physics for the same reason that they are turned off from calculus. That’s one of the nice things about the various levels here at Dublin High. In addition to senior-level trig-based Physics and calculus-based AP Physics, we’ve got a class that’s really all concepts [Conceptual Physics]….That way, if you’re not as comfortable with the math, you can still understand the concepts.”
Harpanhalli: Physics is often perceived as a difficult subject, which requires a lot of math and critical thinking skills. How do you help students not only understand the concepts, but also develop a passion for the subject?
Lewis: “What makes Physics seem so difficult, especially in the AP class, is that…not only are you doing all the heavy-duty math with the calculus, but also bringing in all the concepts back from Conceptual Physics to help them understand all the math. So because it’s a combination of those two things, it ends up being a lot of work.
“Passion…I think passion is infectious. When they see you as a teacher really, really excited about something, how can you help but not be excited about it (even though they’re making fun of me for it half the time under their breath).
“It doesn’t have to be something that they’re passionate enough to pursue, but I think they’re at least passionate enough to hold their interest as we’re progressing through the material.
“Another way I try to make the material easier on the students is to be available at any time. Students email me 24 hours a day. The only time I don’t reply within a half hour is when I’m sleeping! (Just ask them!)”
Harpanhalli: What should students keep in mind before enrolling themselves in a physics course: particularly, at the AP level?
Lewis: “If you’re looking at one of the higher levels of physics, keep in mind that in order to understand the subject matter, you’ll need to understand the complex math behind it. Looking at what we call our normal, senior-level trig-based Physics class, you have to have that understanding of trigonometry. If you don’t, it’s going to be a very difficult course for you. The same thing with AP Physics…the College Board requires Calculus. They actually suggest it as a prerequisite, but what most of our students do is take the two simultaneously. So if you’re really interested in Physics, know that in order to study it at that level, you need an excellent foundation in math. If you still want to take it up, but your math level is preventing you, then Conceptual Physics is a good place to start, just to get a more general understanding of some of the most important topics.”
Harpanhalli: Why do you think so many girls and women choose not to pursue math and physics after middle/high school? How do you encourage your female students to take up physics at the high school level and beyond?
Lewis: “I have gotten in trouble for saying this before, but I think, for whatever reason, whether it’s societal or more of a natural inclination, that women prefer fields that allow them to be nurturing in some way or other. Which is why so many of them pursue the medical field, or other areas which allow them to have some sort of nurturing role. So I’ve been saying for a long time that if we can find avenues in engineering and physics that allow women to directly see their impact on society, you’re going to eventually get more women in these fields. How do you still nurture, then? Well, you’re a role model. You show your passion, develop your interests and abilities, and young girls start to see that it’s possible.
“There’s absolutely no reason coming out of Dublin High School, with the faculty that we have, that we see more boys going into STEM fields than equally-talented girls. So there’s got to be something else there. That’s where I believe the disconnect is. We need to try to find ways to convince more girls that these fields will also have a huge impact on society. If they can see that, I think you’re going to get a lot more women into STEM.”
Harpanhalli: Why is it crucial to know that physics, along with math, is an important course, especially if you are pursuing engineering, or for that matter, any other STEM career?
Lewis: “Physics is the fundamental of everything. I have never met any kind of STEM major who wasn’t required to have at least one year of physics — my own husband’s a Comp Sci guy, had to have 2 years of physics. Premed has to have 2 years of physics. It doesn’t matter what STEM career you choose, you have to have a basic physics background. So I tell all the students I meet who want to pursue a STEM career, you need to take a physics course here. You don’t want to go into college completely blind and feel like you’re at a disadvantage.”
Harpanhalli: Given your vast amount of experience teaching this fascinating subject here at Dublin High, what is it that you look forward to the most every day?
Lewis: “I love interacting with students. I love it when they ask insightful questions, that I don’t know the answers to. I love building a community of learners, where I am one of them. It’s not just being infectious about physics or whatever, but just wanting to gain more knowledge for the rest of your life. And I find that my students are the greatest teachers.
“Last year, the AP Physics class was one of the biggest we’ve had…it was 33 students. And when they graduated….it felt like such a family. Such an intimate, loving family….a large group learning together. Because that’s how I strive for my classes to be….we’re all in this together. Someone struggles, and we all move to help him. Someone has something interesting to share, we all listen to her. We’re all in this journey together, and it’s those little moments that make my day worthwhile.”
Inspired by Katina’s story? You’ll find many more Women in STEM profiles in our Women in STEM Series of interviews.