Toying With Science
Stacy McCormack’s physics lessons have included toy cars, bouncy balls, Barbie dolls and bungee cords, and other playthings.

“Students will often comment that they feel like they are playing, but they are gathering concrete data that allows them to draw conclusions about motion and forces,” says McCormack, MAE ’04, a science teacher at Penn High School in Mishawaka, Indiana.

 
 In 2006, Jim and Nancy Watson use liquid nitrogen and a lighter to demonstrate thermodynamics. The demonstration also includes a carnation, banana, balloon, and other common objects.
“Toys are universally fun and bring out that natural curiosity that you once had when you were a child. We could learn the same topics without using toys—but I don’t believe that students would enjoy it as much or recall the information as well. It’s hard to not be engaged when you are using toys.”

Making physics fun is one reason McCormack was named the 2011 Indiana Teacher of the Year by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. In addition, more girls at Penn are taking math and science classes, and McCormack is sharing her success. Her book, Teacher Friendly Physics, Volume 1, published by AuthorHouse, features fun, low-cost lab experiments.

“Ms. McCormack is a dynamic teacher,” says Bennett. “Her creativity in the classroom captures students’ attention and allows for increased academic achievement. I applaud her for her work and thank her for her many years of dedication to Indiana students.”

Using toys to teach physics was pioneered by McCormack’s mentor, Ball State physics professor Jim Watson, and his wife, Nancy, a middle school science teacher at Burris Laboratory School.

“Jim started using toys as attention getters in his classes,” recalls Nancy Watson. “The college students listened and could figure out what made the toys work. That led to demos with toys and a worksheet for student thought, discussion, and experimenting. It grew and grew and became a national trend.”

For about 30 years, the Watsons used toys to teach physics to everyone from kindergarteners to grad students and drew national attention, including distinguished service citations in 2004 from the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). Jim Watson passed away in 2009, two years after he and Nancy retired.

“Thousands of children across the state of Indiana learned physics with toys because of Dr. Watson’s influence,” McCormack says. “His influence lives on even though he lost his battle with cancer.”

Anyone Can Learn

McCormack met Jim Watson while pursuing her master’s degree through summer workshops offered by Ball State’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“Ball State’s program was designed with teachers in mind,” she says. “The entire degree could be completed in summers only—something that is essential for teachers! I thoroughly enjoyed every class that I took, and the instructors really prepared me for high quality physics instruction.”

McCormack remembers Jim Watson’s sense of humor and his belief that anyone could learn physics. He liked to skewer stereotypes such as girls, especially blondes, being unable to learn physics.

“He was a fantastic mentor and the best kind of teacher—one who pushes you and believes in you even when you doubt yourself,” she says. “Those of us who were lucky enough to learn from him always talk about him with great joy. His class was engaging, as you didn’t even realize you were being challenged since you were having so much fun.”

Nancy Watson, who taught the workshops with her husband, remembers McCormack as a creative, energetic, and hard-working student.

“Stacy was a teacher’s dream student,” she says. “I am sure that Jim is thinking, ‘What took the state so long to recognize her?’”

A Calling

For McCormack, teaching is more than a career.

“I teach because it is my calling,” she says. “I always knew that I would be a teacher. I told my entire family when I was 6 years old that someday I would be a science teacher.

“My biggest reward is when a student who has really struggled with the subject finally ‘gets it’ and can solve a problem on his or her own. Many of my students will tell me at the conclusion of the year that they were afraid of taking this class initially, but since they were able to find success in physics, that inspires them to not back down from topics that are rumored to be difficult. I really hope the perseverance and fortitude they learn in my class stays with them throughout their academic careers.”