Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Rebecca Johnson

Rebecca Johnson loves physics–and teaching it. For two consecutive summers, she has participated in the TOPS program (Teaching Opportunities in Physical Science), hosted by the MIT-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms. In 2010, she also interned with physicist Eric Mazur’s research and education group at Harvard, where she developed a proposal for her senior research project at Wheaton.

What is TOPS?
TOPS is a summer program for undergraduate physics majors who are considering teaching high school physics. The program is designed to give you a positive experience with teaching, and it does! First we designed a course to teach to middle schoolers at the Museum of Science. Then we had a week to ramp up the course to a high school level, and then we spent two weeks teaching high school students. That was a blast! I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy it.

What did you do the second summer?
Every year the program staff chooses one student to come back and help out the following summer, and they invited me. Part of my job was to help the TOPS students outside of class and at work, critiquing and helping them plan lessons. I lived with them in the dorm and helped them navigate MIT/Cambridge/Boston. I called them my ducklings.

What drives your interest in physics education?
Understanding the world around us is an essential part of life. Teaching physics provides me with a chance to spread this enthusiasm and have fun doing it. Anyone who has played with a Van de Graaff generator knows this joy.

What is the topic of your senior honors thesis?
I plan to study the correlation between mathematics self-efficacy (MSE) and performance in physics. Math self-efficacy refers to an individual’s confidence in his or her ability to succeed at math. I will be working with the students in Professor John Collins‘ intro physics class to examine the relationship between low MSE and physics performance.

Who is your favorite Wheaton professor?
My adviser, Professor Collins. He’s there for his students one hundred percent, and he always keeps the big picture of life in mind. When I’m with him, I always get a valuable “life tidbit.”