The study of physics involves the acceptance of certain immutable laws — articles of faith, really.
There are Newton’s laws, Einstein’s theories, Fermi’s golden rule. And in one physics classroom at Bellevue West High School, there are the ironclad principles of Janis Elliott: teamwork, tangibility and intensity.
“What I’m most proud of is being able to bring physics to a wide variety of students,” said Elliott, who last month accepted the Teaching Excellence Award from the Nebraska State Education Association. “For a long time, that door was closed to women and minorities, to students with learning disabilities.
“Anyone can teach the brightest — they’ll teach themselves. It takes talent to turn kids on to physics and attract them to physics.
“My main goal is to keep them in the sciences, to help them find a passion. Even if they don’t end up studying science expressly, maybe they go into law. But maybe they want to become an environmental lawyer. That’s the kind of effect I’m hoping to have on my students. Teaching is a calling, I really believe that. It’s an art and a science and you have to have that sensibility.”
Elliott’s classroom at Bellevue West is an imaginarium of Rube Goldbergian proportions with the notable exception that any complexity in the engineering of the devices dotting the walls is deliberate and necessary.
There are mousetrap cars, leaf-blower hovercrafts, stereo speakers made out of paper plates.
“It kind of does look like chaos,” Elliott said. “But at any given moment, we’re able to call on these experiences and make a lesson. I’ve taken students down to the stoplight at 15th and Cornhusker and we’ll stand there and look and look at the engineering of that light and what goes into it and we can make meaning of it.”
But in an era when classroom technology is making exponential advances, Elliott’s more hands-on approach is refreshing to her students.
Paige Weil is a junior in one of Elliott’s physics classes, of which there are some nine sections this year and, in other years, have gone as high as 12 — a far cry from the one section Elliott taught when she first began in the Bellevue Public Schools in 1994 with one section of the course at Bellevue East High School.
Weil, who wrote a letter of nomination for Elliott’s award, said her teacher’s insistence the students experience those laws of physics firsthand has been a highlight of her young academic career.
“It’s so much fun,” Weil said. “We built electrical circuits and got to see how those worked. She draws things on the board to show us how things happen, step by step, elaborating and elaborating until we see it and feel it. It really helps with the learning. I’ve never had a class like that.”
Above all, Elliott fosters a team approach to learning in her classroom, starting with a personality assessment taken by all students at the beginning of the school year. Based on the results, Elliott organizes the students into four-person groups for labwork and other assignments.
“When you’ve got four people to solve a problem, you work that much smarter and quicker,” she said. “That’s how the world works now. Even at the top engineering firms, people don’t work alone. They work in teams. In your approach to teaching, you can either deny people or attract them. This is a way you attract the students.”
Weil said the approach and her time in Elliott’s classroom have prompted her to look into teaching science as a career, also.
“It’s either that or I want to definitely do something in science,” Weil said. “Mrs. Elliott has inspired me. Just being in her class, I want to learn how everything works.”
Kevin Rohlfs, principal at Bellevue West said the school has seen an uptick in female students flocking to physics and the other sciences during Elliott’s tenure.
He said it’s all part of a general trend of students wanting to be a part of Elliott’s classes.
“The number of female students has increased in our upper-level science classes like physics,” Rohlfs said. “She’s shown that these are very possitive classes students want to be a part of and she brings the passion and the fun to them to make them worthwhile and interesting.”
Stories like those abound for Elliott, a native of Coleridge, Neb., who began her teaching career in 1984 in the Ponca (Neb.) Public Schools.
As a woman with majors in chemistry and biology at Wayne State College in the 1970s, Elliott said she was in the decided minority and, even after graduating, didn’t jump right into teaching, instead working as a chemist in Wakefield, Neb.
When she did decide to put her teaching certificate to use, she also shortly thereafter began pursuing a master’s degree in science education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln under the direction of Bob Fuller, who urged Elliott to move from teaching in biology and chemistry to physics.
“He encouraged me to be a cross-over teacher,” Elliott said. “At the time, there was a high demand, especially for women, in the sciences and especially in physics. Bob Fuller was a great mentor to me and I want to pass that along to my students, too.”
Elliott has parlayed her classroom teaching into greater ventures, pursuing grants far and wide for programs in and outside the walls of the academy, lobbying for education and also helping to build on scientific education for kids like summer camps for students entering the physics class and a Google-sponsored camp to attract more girls to the sciences.
“It’s a big part of who I am,” Elliott said. “The kids see I do things for them outside of the classroom, I lobby for children’s rights. I’ll come in sometimes and tell them I have dinner with a few senators to talk about a bill. These are issues that have an effect on them and I just love being able to do it.”
Another student of Elliott’s, David Schumacher, is now pursuing a college degree to teach science and wrote of his high school mentor: “I feel that a good day in her class and any other science class, or any class in general, is one in which I am challenged and have to adapt my views on something to develop a more specific understanding of a subject.”
Schumacher cited the building of the mousetrap cars as a highly-influential day in his career and one where the lesson was more than just something from a worksheet.
“I just remember how awesome that day was because it provoked me to learn much more about these physics concepts than if I was just taking a test over them,” he said.
Rohlfs has also figured into a few of the physics class’ experiments, being hoisted to the ceiling in a chair and also riding the hovercraft creations.
“Day in, day out, Jan brings passion and relevancy to what she does in the classroom,” Rohlfs said. “It’s not just theoretical physics for her and the students. She’s shown what careers can be made and that people apply these concepts and use them every day.”
Elliott explains that these days, students can see just about any experiment replicated on the Internet but it puts more of a charge in the lesson if they can do it themselves.
“Sure, it would be much easier to do a computer simulation,” she said. “But they’ll never really know: was that science or was it just some viral video? When they see it and feel it, they know it.”
The reliance on the tangible combined with the technological has twice netted Elliott the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association’s Technology Toolkit Award, in 2008 and again in 2012.
Teaching with Offutt Air Force Base just down the road has also proved a boon for Elliott, as she has been able to tap into the military’s applied sciences with the unit she does each year on physics in the Nuclear Age.
“She’s really tapped into the resources here,” Rohlfs said. “Between Offutt, the police department, the city planners with the traffic light study, she makes it relevant right here in Bellevue.”
Elliott has been present at the launch of a Peacekeeper missile and has also taken a ride on the U.S.S. Nebraska, a nuclear submarine. High-ranking military personnel in charge of the nation’s nuclear arsenal visit her classes.
She said her reliance on those resources is all part of her larger philosophy of making education the centerpiece not just in a school but in a community.
“I wouldn’t ever have been able to do those kinds of things if I didn’t have this community to live and teach in,” she said. “I grew up in a great community that was extremely supportive of education and I’m honored to teach now in Bellevue, a place where education is valued and the community — the Rotary Club, the PTSA (Bellevue’s Parent Teacher Student Association), the Air Force, everyone — put the emphasis on education.”