Aug 16, 2018

Roy Coleman

Roy Coleman: A Life in Hands-On Science Education

Roy Coleman (PHYS ’64) found his profession at IIT and a group of fellow educators with whom he shares an ardent belief in hands-on science education.

“You get much better interaction with the kids when you show them something first and they ask you why,” said Coleman.In turn, he brought to IIT the Chicago Regional and International Bridge Building Competition; 20 years of work on the SMILE (Science and Mathematics Initiative for Learning Enhancement) program; support for the SMART (Science and Mathematics with Application of Relevant Technology) program; stints of teaching and working in the computer science lab here; and, with wife Dianna Uchida (M.S. CS ‘92), years of support as donors and participants in campus activities.

“Roy Coleman and I share a viewpoint about hands-on experiences in education,” said John Zasadzinski, the Paul and Suzi Schutt Chair of Science and professor of physics. “With the advent of powerful PCs, iPads, and other devices, along with sophisticated software and graphics, there has been a tendency to replace true hands-on learning with computer-based simulations. This is a mistake. Students need to build circuits, do simple machining, make something and perform experiments to gain an intuitive understanding of complicated phenomena. It’s amazing to me to see how fascinated students are to hold a silicon wafer, to feel the weight of something made of pure lead, or to watch an oscilloscope.”

Coleman taught at Morgan Park High School from 1964-2006, and his many honors include the University of Chicago Outstanding Teacher Award in 2005, Presidential Award of Excellence, and Argonne Chapter of Sigma Xi Outstanding Physics Teacher.

He also received a Certificate of Excellence from Operation PUSH, was a finalist for the Golden Apple teaching award, and won the IIT Alumni Medal (IIT’s most prestigious award) in 2006.

Coleman’s 50-plus-year association with IIT began with a question.

“I came to IIT in 1960 as an undecided science major,” he recalled. “The choice was between math, physics, and chemistry.”

But Bob Estin, professor of physics, made the choice easy. “I can remember him dancing on the lab table,” said Coleman. “He’d never stand still. He’d take off his shoes to jump up on the table. One time, he did that and the students glued his shoes down.”

After he graduated and began to teach at Morgan Park, he said, “For the first couple of years, I did a lot of writing on the board, only doing a couple of demos.” But by the late 1960s, change was in the air, including in education.

Around this time, “I was teaching the students about force,” Coleman recalled. “They asked me, ‘What can we do with all this force stuff?’ I said, ‘You can build a bridge with it.’ Pretty soon, a kid came in with a balsa wood bridge he’d built at home. We hung eight bricks on it. Someone else came in with another balsa wood bridge, saying, ‘I can beat that.’ Three or four other kids brought in their bridges.” Eventually he realized, “This might be a good idea for a competition.”

He and fellow teacher Lee Slick started a competition for all of their classes at Morgan Park. In 1972, they brought the idea to their continuing education classes at IIT.


With funding for the program provided by the National Defense of Education Act (NDEA), a cadre of teachers had begun to meet in 1971 to share in developing the “phenomenological” approach to the teaching and learning of physics—“show, don’t tell.” IIT faculty involved included Earl Zwicker, professor of physics, Ken Schug, professor of chemistry, George Ross, associate professor of psychology and education, and Bob Estin, Coleman’s old physics teacher.

“Pretty soon, the group from Marist High School said, ‘We can build a stronger bridge than they can,’ ” Coleman recalled. “Then Thornwood High School. Then three or four other schools. That’s where it started.”

The contest went Chicago-wide and then spread to the suburbs, other states, and internationally. By 1975, it was well established and held at IIT, its home today.

“The bridge-building contest is often the first exposure that high school students have to IIT,” said Carlo Segre, Duchossois Leadership Professor of Physics. “Roy has been a driving force behind the contest for nearly 40 years now, and his enthusiasm continues to encourage new teachers to participate.”

Over the years, Coleman has noted a change in students’ manual ability. “Early in the bridge contest, the guys were always winning; but sometime in the mid-1980s, for about a two-year period, the girls were just destroying the guys” in the bridge-building competition, Coleman recalled. “And the reason was video games! The guys were getting involved with video games, and they stopped being creative with their hands.” But by the late 1990s, both boys and girls had lost a lot of manual ability. “In time, kids didn’t even know how to use the tools, like cutting with a single-edge razor rather than a double-edged razor blade,” he said.

The SMILE program, started in the mid-1980s, developed out of the 1970s’ education programs. A repository of its lessons, science fair projects, and other teaching aids is online and remains the single most visited part of IIT’s website. “Earl, Porter [Johnson], and Ken Schug were masters of digging up little grants” to support it, said Coleman.

Coleman learned computer programming at IIT in 1964 and in turn taught the use of computers to other Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers— including Uchida. “I was out of the classroom for 15 weeks,” Coleman recalled, as director of a program that taught “everything you wanted to know about computers in a day” to 15,000 CPS teachers. “They picked out 20 teachers to help me. Dianna was one of them. She asked a couple of good questions in class; I noticed her.”

He used technology to woo her, writing one of the first PC programs for a TRS-80 to access the McGill University MUSIC system (Multi-User System for Interactive Computing) for her. “This was with 64K of memory, including the operating system,” he said. “I learned Assembler on my own.” A fellow ardent educator, Uchida taught at Dunbar High School for many years before transferring to Morgan Park in 1998. She retired in 2009.

Today, Coleman and Uchida are among the most active of alumni, regularly attending lectures at IIT, particularly about sustainability and science. Coleman also works with the physics department on Illinois State Physics Project activities. Still learning, still teaching, keeping up the SMILE and SMART websites, and otherwise still enjoying a life of science education.

No comments:

Post a Comment