With summer quickly approaching, we wanted to introduce you to another new instructor at Saturday Academy: Lee Collins. Lee has an extensive history of teaching all levels of physics at Portland Community College. We spoke with Lee to learn more about his background, experiences, and passion for teaching.
Lee will be teaching Kinetic Machines: Rube Goldberg Camp and two sessions of Fun with Physics Camp this summer with us - don't forget to check those out!
Could you provide some information on your history and background?
I attended Oregon State University and earned a bachelor’s degree in computational physics, as well as a master’s degree in physics of the ocean, earth, and atmospheric science. After leaving OSU, I started teaching a few physics classes part-time at Portland Community College. This turned into a full-time teaching position, and now I’ve been teaching at PCC full-time for 8 years. I’ve taught all levels of physics classes at PCC, into the 100-level classes, all the way up to the calculus-based physics classes for scientists and engineers.
How did you initially get into STEM?
I’ve been interested in science and math for as long as I can remember. I was the type of kid that wanted a microscope for Christmas! I think my parents, who both have a background in science and engineering, instilled a curiosity about the natural world into me from an early age. My favorite classes in grade school were always science and math, and I carried that interest and curiosity into college and beyond.
One class that stands out in my memory is AP Chemistry in high school, I remember one assignment we were given was to identify a mystery chemical compound that was given to us based on tests that we performed (burn it to see what color came out, or combine it with acid to see what happened, etc). I remember really enjoying the feeling of doing “real” science, testing based on hypotheses and forming theories about the results. Prior to this class “science” had been mostly recipe-based labs and experiments, so I was surprised and intrigued to see that science could be creative as well.
What interests you most about the STEM field?
I’m a naturally curious person, so for me, science (and STEM overall) is a gateway to understanding the world. I like knowing how things work, so studying science has been perfect for me to satisfy that curiosity.
Is there anything specific in your experiences (that you’d like to highlight? What's a really cool thing you've done recently?
In 2016 I received the Excellence Award in Teaching from the League for Innovation, and the following year I was able to travel to San Francisco to represent PCC at the annual League for Innovation conference. I really enjoyed talking and networking with other college teachers for several days.
When PCC began teaching remotely in 2020, the Southeast campus started a video newsletter called the Southeast Sequel where folks could connect remotely and share what’s going on in their departments. I was invited on the show in August 2020 and gave a quick lesson on the “intermediate axis theorem” (sometimes called the Dzhanibekov effect after the Russian cosmonaut that is credited with discovering it). Want to learn more about the intermediate axis theorem? You’ll need to take Fun with Physics this summer!
What drives your passion for teaching or passion for the subject(s) that you teach?
Physics is often misunderstood as being difficult and boring, so I often feel like I have an obligation to show my students that physics is in fact very interesting and relevant to their real lives. I see physics in every aspect of life, so I try to share this perspective with my students.
Which aspects of physics (or other things that you teach) do students find most fascinating?
I think students are typically much more interested in physics phenomena that they can see and interact with every day. Students connect better to subjects when they are relatable to their day-to-day lives. Students can only learn so much from lectures and diagrams on a chalkboard, so for many students, the “real” learning doesn’t start until they’re able to get their hands on physics and build something, test something, measure something, or see something.
What are some major takeaways from the classes you are teaching this summer? (brief insight into the curriculum!)
There is physics involved in every aspect of people’s everyday lives. The physics of light and color explain how glasses and contact lenses correct vision, and why plants are green but the sky is blue. The physics of fluids and buoyancy explain why boats float yet coins sink, why curveballs curve, and how suction cups work. The physics of forces and energy explain how objects move and how levers, pulleys, and other simple machines make our lives easier. And the physics of electricity and magnetism explain how electricity is generated and used to power our world.
My classes this summer will focus on explaining “everyday” physics and making as many connections to students’ lives as possible!
What are you most excited for your students to learn or experience in your classes?
On the last day of Fun with Physics, students will construct a working electric motor and electric generator to learn how electric power is generated in the real world. I’m very excited for students to learn where electricity (probably the most important aspect of modern society) comes from!
Is there anything else you'd like to touch on regarding your background or what you are teaching this summer?
This is my first time teaching for Saturday Academy, so I’m just excited to get into the classroom and teach students the exciting world of physics!
Thank you so much for sharing with us, Lee! Don't forget to check out the camps and classes Lee is teaching. See below and follow the links for more information:
Kinetic Machines: Rube Goldberg Camp begins at Open School East on July 5th for students in grades 3-4. The camp runs Tuesday-Friday until July 8th.
There are two sessions of Fun with Physics Camp for different grade ranges. For grades 2-4, the class runs from July 11th-July 15th, Monday through Friday, from 8:30 AM to 3:30 PM. For grades 4-6, the class runs from July 25th-July 29th, Monday through Friday, from 8:30 AM to 3:30 PM. Both sessions are at the Open School East.