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Award winning alumni physics teacher looks back fondly

| Denise Olson

Our alumni accomplish great things both while students at UWEC and in their lives after graduation. One of our physics education alums is a great example of the high standards that our students set for themselves year after year. Aiming high has clearly paid off for him and, just as importantly, for his students.

Michael Yohn, 2013 physics education grad, was the recipient of a prestigious national scholarship awarded by the American Association of Physics Teachers, the Barbara Lotze Scholarship for Future Teachers. This $2000 scholarship is awarded to only five students annually, and was given in recognition of his excellence in both academics and service to the field.

Yohn is currently working in Hartford, WI teaching high school physics and principles of engineering, at both the standard and AP levels. He recently took some time to reflect on his time here and the impact of earning an honor like the Lotze scholarship.

Can you tell us a bit about your current teaching?

This year I teach a few Physics and AP Physics classes, which tend to follow a more modified traditional structure.  There are definitely lecture portions of the class, but we focus on relating student experiences, laboratory experiments, and logical reasoning to the physics theories of the world around us.  I also teach a Principles of Engineering class, which is entirely project based.  So far this year we have designed paper towers, model wooden bridges, CO2 cars, Rube Goldberg machines, entire cities in 3D modeling software, and trebuchets.

What aspects of your Blugold degree best prepared you for this career?

My degree best prepared me for this job in two ways, the the knowledge gained from my coursework and the opportunities it has given me.  The Physics and Math courses I took at UWEC were wonderful, and really helped me to dig deeper than the content I would be teaching to see some of the underlying patterns and reasoning behind the disciplines. 

Such coursework has helped me immensely in teaching students, as their questions always push past the boundaries of our high school curriculum. This background enables to me help them explore their interests and passions, extending their interest in physics and learning in general. 

It has also been incredibly helpful in letting me see connections from my content to both other disciplines and to the everyday lives of students.  Just today I can think of moments where we discussed psychology, marketing, government, politics, religion, philosophy, and history in my "science" classes. 

These connections in my classroom were made possible because of the connections I had to make completing my degree at a liberal arts school like UWEC, and from classes such as "Politics of Everyday Life", "Journey of the Soul", "Environmental Speech and Activism", and others.

What stands out most to you about the opportunities and experiences you had at UWEC?

The real world opportunities given to me by the physics department and the education department have also been integral to my success as a first year educator.  I spent 2 semesters being a lab assistant to Dr. Matt Evans for some of UWEC's introductory physics courses, which gave me direct experience working with students on the coursework that I am teaching this year. 

I went to a few middle school science fairs with Dr. Erik Hendrickson as a guest judge, which gave me some experience in evaluating student work and in conversing on science topics with students.

But perhaps the largest opportunity given to me by the physics department was in the student-faculty research that I completed with Dr. Evans.  Applying my physics knowledge to new research conducted over a period of years has given me some real world experience to take to my students in the classroom and get them interested. 

I've kept my poster from UWEC's Student Research day and hung it up in my classroom, and every week I have students reading it over, asking questions, and just getting more interested in the subject as a whole because they can see a tangible connection.  These sorts of connections are where the magic of teaching happens, and it's these moments of shared interest, passion, and curiosity that drives me as an educator. 

It makes my profession what it is, and if it weren't for such connections I would not be teaching today.

How did winning an award like the Lotze Scholarship impact your studies?

The Barbara Lotze scholarship turned out to be an incredible gift of time for me during the last couple years of my degree. That money held me over my last summer and helped me push through to graduation.

It also did wonders for my self confidence and bolstered my personal drive for success, being recognized for your accomplishments is always a great feeling. To this day I am still extremely thankful to Barbara Lotze and the AAPT for sponsoring the scholarship, and to my UWEC Physics Professors (most notably Dr. Matt Evans) for pushing me to apply for it and guiding me through the application process.

What would you say to young students interested in studying physics and astronomy at UW-Eau Claire?

UWEC has an excellent Physics program for whatever branch prospective students might be going in, whether that's teaching, applied physics, or graduate work.  This is because the Physics department at UWEC isn't just concerned with teaching content (although they do that extremely well), but is really about making students the most effective people that they can be.  The sheer number of opportunities for research, collaboration, and interdisciplinary work are astounding and really serve to push your education beyond the limits of a traditional undergraduate degree. 

During my 4 years at UWEC I was confident that even if I ended up switching out of the teaching program I would always have a home in the Physics department, whether that be for engineering, applied physics, or graduate prep, and that my stay there would prepare me as much as possible for the next step in my life.