Denisova - January 2018 Member SpotlightSpotlight Archive

Member Spotlight

Katya Denisova
STEM Achievement in Baltimore Elementary Schools
Baltimore, MD

In school, physics was never my strongest subject. I was more into languages and dance. However, as all members of my family majored in either math or science, I never had a fear of physics and was pretty confident in my abilities to do well in it in college. As a college physics major, I quickly learned that most students in my track were simply "good in" physics, and I, frankly, was not. I was struggling to find meaning in the formulas and the purpose of classical labs.  I was frustrated that the way physics was taught to me was not making any sense for my brain. I got angry at the traditional physics teaching methods and decided to major in Physics Education for my Masters and PhD with the mission to figure out how to find better ways of teaching physics to non-physics-wired individuals, like myself.

A pure chance (ballet performance) made me meet Dr. Roy Unruh, the leader of the PRISMS project, University of Northern Iowa (UNI). I was fascinated by the idea of teaching complex physics concepts and relationships by using toys and common household objects. The internship with PRISMS (1998-2000) opened the world of inquiry teaching for me and defined my carrier as a physics educator. My ‘American father’, Dr. Unruh encouraged me to join AAPT and since then I have maintained very strong bonds with its members, many of whom became my close friends.

In 2004 I attended a summer PTRA institute for the first time. Little did I know, that this group would become my major support system for years to come, both personally and professionally. It is largely because of the work of PTRAs that I decided to focus my career on High School Physics, and later on Elementary and Middle school curricula and teacher professional development. My National Board Certification submissions of 2007 and 2017 contained a large body of strategies and ideas that I has developed based on PTRA pedagogy.

For the last six years, I have been a Principal Investigator of an NSF-funded collaboration between Johns Hopkins University and Baltimore City (Maryland) Public Schools. My role in the project SABES (STEM Achievement in Baltimore Elementary Schools) has been to design robust elementary science curriculum, and develop a multi-tiered system of professional development for teachers and school administrators, including instructional coaching, content courses, and a science leadership class for principals. In many projects I relied on my vast network of AAPT colleagues, who have supported me with advice on physics teaching, professional development, life-work balance, and how to build relationships with people. My professional creativity and confidence has often been due to the ‘shoulders’ of AAPT ‘giants’ I have been standing on.

Physics has always fascinated me with its simplicity, symmetry, and elegance. I am grateful to AAPT for helping me learn how to share this fascination with diverse groups of students, both children and adults.