Physics teacher Matt Shields, who recently received a 2014 MIT Inspirational Teacher Award for his work both in and out of the classroom with students at Charlottesville High School, never planned to be a teacher.
“Physics was almost an accident. I think I got a C in physics in college,” Shields said, adding that his master’s degree is in mechanical engineering. He worked as an engineer in Washington, D.C., and as a web developer at Monticello.
“I started teaching on a whim, and there was a physics opening,” he said.
But now, after six years at the helm of lessons about force, torque, and drag, Shields recognizes that his own sense of deep curiosity triggers the passion he shares with his students.
“I’m always trying to get to the root of things, and physics is always the answer to that,” he said.
The Fairfax native and Wahoo undergrad (who went on to get his Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from UVA) described himself as “one of those kids walking down the street asking why.” Physics, he said, helps decipher the answers to universal mysteries. “Sometimes I feel like I’m cheating because it’s such an easy class to make interesting,” he said. “ I think every kid has an interest in how the world works. Why do stars and black holes work? What is dark matter? How does the Internet work? These are things I can pull out if class ever gets boring.”
Shields connects with the many students who sing his praises by not only appreciating their desire to learn but allowing it to guide their in-class experiences. After transferring from Albemarle to CHS, he opened the floor to his kids. Their response, he said, changed everything.
“The kids were learning because they wanted to,” as traditional learning standards became embedded in interesting educational experiences. He recalled an experiment when his students decided to send a weather balloon into space with a camera attached. “Doing that successfully required all kinds of calculations of volume and buoyancy and drag and height, and we learned about GPS and radio location and meteorology and wind stream,” he said. “We interacted with the community, with the Charlottesville Radio Club. It was really enriching, and I’m sure we crushed some standards.”
Shields’ philosophy has earned him the adoration of hundreds of students, including Emily Keeley, the MIT freshman who nominated him for this year’s Inspirational Teacher Award, which is given every year to a selection of 25-30 high school teachers, coaches, and counselors from around the world. Emily and her twin sister, Charlotte, took Shields’ physics class instead of lunch their junior year.
“It’s hard for me to take much credit because I thought they were going to be very successful whether teachers helped or got in their way,” Shields said.
He invited the sisters to participate in BACON ( “Best All aRound Club Of Nerds”), the student-run science club and “umbrella group for students nerding out about stuff,” as Shields, who acts as supervisor, described it.
“I was excited to bring them in and give them free rein, to say ‘If I gave you resources, what would you do with it?’” he said.
The Keeleys created Science Projects Advising and Mentoring, or SPAM, to connect high school science students with UVA teachers to participate in their real-world research projects. It was the sort of deeply engaged, above-and-beyond concept Shields has come to expect.
“Most science projects are like, ‘Here is my Styrofoam model of the planet,’” he said with a laugh. “One of the places the school system falls short is when students fail to meet certain requirements or standards, they can fall through the cracks. I try to find some of those students who are maybe already doing great things or headed to engineering or science and see if I can push or encourage them to go bigger or deeper.”
At heart, Shields said, he’s just a guy who loves to learn and act as an advocate for kids. He gives them resources to further encourage them to take the wheel of their own curriculums—and lifelong educations.
“That’s been the secret to our success. My first year I saw that I could just ask them what they’re interested in and say, ‘Yeah, I’m all about that. Kids these days are just brimming with all kinds of wild stuff,” he said. “I feel like my job is just to get out of the way.”