Etkina, Eugenia

Associate Professor
My Story: 
I was a year away from graduating from high school and had no idea what I wanted to do. My sister Anna wanted passionately to be a math teacher, but she was born with a defective heart. Anna died the year she was graduating from college and already having a job as a math teacher. She was 21 and I was 15. I never wanted to teach. Although my mom was a math teacher and my dad was a physics professor and they both wanted me to do what they did, I was not interested. I wanted to be a ballerina. But I loved my sister. The day she died I promised to replace her and become a teacher.

However, one thing I knew I couldn’t do, I couldn’t teach math- too dry. So I started thinking about different fields –what could I teach? Because I lived in the Soviet Union, to teach history or literature meant to lie, being that it was all political. I could not in good conscious teach lies, so I knew I could not teach history or literature. Not biology, not chemistry, because I have no memory. So what was left? I told Dad, “I’m afraid I’ll have to be a physics teacher.” He got very excited, but I at that time I was not. Imagining my life full of physics scared me. 

I was trained in the Soviet Union to be a physics teacher. My preparation was equivalent to a Masters in physics and more than a Masters in education in the United States. It was similar to a five-year program here. By the time I graduated from the university I changed my attitude towards physics. It happened because one of the professors at the university, who taught astrophysics (Igor Novikov). He made physics really interesting. He taught two courses: evolution of stars and cosmology. He was such a great natural born teacher - he probably knew nothing about pedagogy or teaching methods, but he made every lecture like a detective story. He had a 100% attendance to every lecture. He was a real scientist, working on cutting edge research. We read his books and papers in class. He showed me how to really enjoy and appreciate physics.

My decision to move to the United States was fueled by an advanced pen-pal project that I and an Iowa professor of science education, Lynn Glass, orchestrated. We met in the Soviet Union at the first Russian-American science teacher convention. He was the president of the National Association of Science Teachers here. I attended one of his talks and he, in turn, came to listen to one of my talks. We started talking and we found a lot of things in common. From this encounter, the SciLink program was developed which partnered high school students in Moscow with students in Iowa. The students chose each other through similar interests and were assigned to work on a science project together. They investigated some problem, for example, how a calculator works, which they presented to their parents and the school. Students visited each other in their homes, with students from Moscow coming to visit the United States and students from Iowa flying to Russia.

I moved from teaching physics to studying how students learn physics because of my students. It happened about 7 years after I started teaching. I always had very good relationships with my former students and they used to visit my home long after they had graduated. One of my former students, one of my very best students, who was in college studying to be a theatre director, met with me one evening (a year after graduation) and excitedly described how physics was used with the advent of the pinhole camera in 17th century theatre. However, he could not remember the lab that we had done about pinhole cameras in his physics class! The only thing he could remember was X-rays, because he had presented a project to the class. That was the only thing that he had learned by himself. And he remembered it.

Everything that I had prepared so well, all my wonderful presentations and demonstrations that I thought were pretty interactive, the questions I asked (I didn’t just lecture) had little effect. I didn’t have a system where the students were actively and consciously engaged in the construction of knowledge. So they didn’t remember much. This discovery made me reconsider not only how I should teach but turned me into a physics education researcher: how can we study and enhance student learning?

Now, in addition to doing this research I train future physics teachers. Hopefully they will not repeat my mistakes!

Overall, I know that although my choice to enter into this field was due to my sister, I have never regretted it. And although I am not a ballerina, I rollerblade in class helping my students learn the laws of mechanics, loving every minute of it…

Transcribed from interview with Christina Leshko.
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