READFIELD – Maranacook Community High School physics teacher Steven DeAngelis last week became one of only 50 science teachers nationally, chosen annually, to be awarded a Presidential Award for Excellence in mathematics and science teaching.
He and his wife, Tara Wicks, spent all of last week in Washington D.C., where they, along with 49 other science teachers and their spouses, and 50 math teachers and their spouses, were given the royal treatment. Some friends, who had been honored before, told him he would have a wonderful time, but “until you do it, you can’t imagine how cool it is. It still makes my mouth drop open,” he said.
On their first night in Washington, the National Science Foundation representatives who organized the week-long event “closed down Smithsonian Air and Space museum just for us.” There were “candlelit tables, a band playing. It was incredible,” the 51-year-old father of three said.
“The last night was the most amazing,” he added. Awardees were treated to a genuine state dinner – in the Ben Franklin Ballroom on the top floor of the State Department headquarters. “Thomas Jefferson’s original desk is there,” DeAngelis exclaimed. Waiters stood at each table, refilling awardees glasses each time they took a sip, he added, and instead of silverware there was “gold-ware, and gold plates. It was really bizarre – nothing a teacher ever gets.”
“The thing that struck me over the past week – it surprised us that it was such a big deal,” said Wick. “And the thing that really sums it up, is their motto was “to celebrate and inspire. Because it’s so hard to keep teaching at such a high standard and level. Steve’s gotten other awards and accolades, but this one pushed him to keep going. It was wonderful to witness that and be a part of that. It definitely was a gift to share that with him,” Wicks said.
The best part of the week, DeAngelis said, were all the other science teachers he and Tara got to meet, and the science-oriented programs they went to every day. One day, the NSF “flew in some cutting-edge researchers, who talked to us all day about what they’re doing,” and taught the teachers how to teach the newest, cutting-edge concepts. “It was like a science teacher’s dream,” DeAngelis said.
To win the award after being nominated, DeAngelis had to send in a videotape of some of his lessons and describe his teaching philosophy, which he said is centered largely on trying to make his physics classes different than what he had in high school in Brewer. “I want it to be something meaningful for the students.” To do that, he has to connect physics to their lives.
He tells his students in the beginning of each semester they should expect a roller coaster ride – with fun classes one day, and extremely difficult ones the next. To teach how rockets work, he stands inside a rolling cart and throws bowling balls at a mattress on a wall nearby. Throwing the balls makes the cart move across the room. How? Remember Newton’s Third Law of Motion? For every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction? Well, when you throw a bowling ball out in front of you, it pushes back.
While he went on to be an engineer for a few years before starting teaching more than 20 years ago, DeAngelis says most of his students probably won’t choose careers in fields that use physics extensively. But “what’s cool about physics, in my mind, is it teaches you critical thinking skills,” he said.
This summer, he’s planning on taking his wife and three children out west for some hands-on learning. They’ll see the Grand Canyon and get to touch the Pacific Ocean. To do that, he’s making use of the final piece of his Presidential Award – $10,000.
Receiving the money was “kind of cool,” DeAngelis said Tuesday. “That doesn’t happen to teachers all that often.