Lisa Taylor ’11 Rocks Her Physics Classroom

By Anne Burke
Photo by Keith Hedgecock

Lisa Taylor ’11 teaches physics to students at Huntington Beach High School and loves it.

 

About the Author

Anne Burke is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, UCLA Magazine, VIA Magazine and other publications.

It is a few minutes before the start of teacher Lisa Taylor’s fifth-period AP physics class at Huntington Beach High School.

As students shuffle through the door, Taylor ’11 cranks up Katy Perry’s “Roar,” which comes blasting out of Fender speakers.

Taylor’s point is not necessarily to telegraph a “physics rocks!” message, although there is that.

It’s to get teens pumped for 50 minutes of Newton’s laws of motion, kinematic equations, and a spirited tug of war that turns out to be both good fun and a beautiful lesson in physics. (“You’re not going to win by pulling on the rope. Use your legs to push into the ground,” Taylor explains.)

Taylor, who earned a bachelor’s of science degree in physics in the Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering in 2011 and a secondary-education credential in the School of Education in 2012 from LMU, has been teaching for just three years.

Yet the LMU alumna is at the vanguard of a good-news trend that has gotten scant attention in the national dialogue over the shortage of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines.

While some 60 percent of high school teachers in the United States are women, the percentage of females helming physics classrooms is much lower, the American Institute of Physics reports.

But the numbers are climbing, steadily if not with meteoric rapidity. In 1987, women accounted for less than one in four high school physics teachers; in 2009, nearly one in three was female.

Taylor knew early on that she would make physics her life’s work. “I remember getting 100 percent on the midterm in AP physics and thinking, this is awesome!”

By the time she arrived at LMU as a sophomore, Taylor was something of a phenomenon. In her first physics test at LMU, for a course called “Electricity and Magnetism,” she earned a perfect score.

David Berube, clinical assistant professor in physics, had never seen anything like it.

“She was the first person to ever get a 100 on any of the tests in that course, and it’s rare, still. Usually, people will make some small mistake somewhere. But her test was absolutely perfect,” Berube says.

Taylor could have pursued a career in industry or gone on to an advanced degree. Neither appealed to her. What interested her was high-energy, go-go-go environment of the high school classroom. Her first assignment was at Santa Margarita Catholic High School. This fall, she landed at Huntington Beach High.

Taylor teaches five classes a day. No two are alike. The first begins at 7 a.m. The last ends at 12:18 p.m. Class time accounts for only about half of Taylor’s workday. In the afternoon, students — “my babies,” she calls them — pop in to her classroom, one after another.

Some come for help with homework or for review sessions. Others are looking for a congenial place to hang out or someone to share a meal with.

“A burrito with French fries! Thanks!” Taylor says to junior Ted Somekh, who has brought leftovers from a birthday celebration.

If students invite her to attend their theatrical productions, football games, or choral performances, she goes. Sometimes, she does not shut off the lights in her classroom until 9 p.m. She says she doesn’t mind.

“The way I look at it is, the more you are their fan, the more that they are your fans.”

Of those, Taylor has plenty. Especially among girls, who say that Taylor does a lot to take the fear factor out of physics.

“People said, ‘Oh, you don’t want to take that class. It’s so hard,’ ” said junior Sydney Gentile. “But she’s just like, really inspiring. It’s my favorite class.”