Transforming How Students Think About the World
Every morning on the way to school, Carlie Nemecek’s dad asked, “What’s the science question of the day?” Her replies ranged from “Why do we sneeze?” to “Why does the rain drop on the windshield?”
Nemecek attributes her inquisitive nature to her father’s questions and encouragement.
“I spent so many days of my life thinking about what to ask my dad next,” says Nemecek, an Advanced Placement® Physics teacher at Morse High School in San Diego and NMSI’s January teacher of the month. “I developed an innate desire and quest for knowledge.”
These childhood experiences led Nemecek to pursue a physics degree at the University of California, San Diego. When she became a teaching assistant for a physics lab, Nemecek realized she is good at explaining the concepts to others. So many students began attending her tutoring sessions that it was necessary to schedule a classroom space in advance so they wouldn’t overwhelm the lab.
At 20 years old, Nemecek was teaching physics to students older than her, leading to this conclusion: “I have to be a teacher. This is what I’m called to do.”
Nemecek hopes to pass along the leadership skills she developed in college to students at Morse High. Like in any class, Nemecek’s AP Physics courses have students excelling and those that need additional help. At the beginning of class, a few students that score high on a test will meet to figure out how to complete the one or two solutions they missed. Then, Nemecek and students will each lead a small group of other students to help them understand the test’s answers.
“There’s something about students teaching another student – they get it differently,” Nemecek says. “I don’t know if the language is similar or what, but lightbulbs start going off when they didn’t before.”
Along with empowering high-performing students, Nemecek also gives struggling students opportunities to take ownership of their learning, calling it an “invitation to success.” After six weeks, Nemecek will write the identification numbers of students with a D or F on the board. On Mondays, these students know they can come to Nemecek for a one-on-one conversation about the barriers to success and how to overcome it.
Talking about life, some students say they couldn’t finish an assignment because they’re babysitting a brother or sister. “We can’t change the life circumstance, so we brainstorm ways to modify their time, like spending an extra hour at the library rather than going home right away,” Nemecek says.
Once a plan is made, students make a commitment to Nemecek. If that plan doesn’t work, they think about other ways to help the student be successful. Students know they’ll continue to have an ongoing conversation and constant accountability with Nemecek while they work to achieve a passing grade. “I want students to know they are more powerful than their circumstance,” she says.
Morse Principal Cynthia Larkin says Nemecek “uses various ways to let her students know that she cares about them” and “strives to ensure that all students know that they can achieve academic success in her classroom.”
As the Morse head softball coach, Nemecek has a passion for showing students how physics relates to sports. Netwon’s third law (every force has an equal yet opposite force) demonstrates how a ball puts a force on the bat, and the bat puts a force on the ball. Without friction, Nemecek tells students they couldn’t run.
“A lot of kids have this construction in their heads that life happens in one box and physics happens in another with no connection,” Nemecek says. “The more I can get them to understand that physics is the context of their lives, it transforms how they think about the world.”
Nemecek has enjoyed connecting with other AP Physics teachers at NMSI trainings. With 15 years of experience, she’s found interacting with AP Physics C teachers to be the most useful. “It’s awesome being in a space with educators who know physics like I know physics,” Nemecek says about the NMSI trainings. “We have conversations on a high intellectual level. It’s awesome.”
NMSI’s study sessions help Nemecek’s students “grow in their knowledge” by having other teachers to share ideas in a different way. Funding from NMSI to buy more classroom equipment takes away the “fuzziness” of doing certain projects.
More than any other lesson, Nemecek hopes students transform how they think about themselves.
“If students have positive self-talk, they’ll have a better education and life,” Nemecek says. “My job as a teacher is not teaching physics but giving them the access to be successful in life, and that’s completely through your thoughts. If they think about life in a constructive way, they can do anything they want.”
Know a NMSI-connected teacher who deserves recognition? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to tell us how they are making a difference in math, science, English and arts education for their students.