A guide to the sciences, offered by teachers everywhere, is that if it's green or wiggles, it's biology; if it stinks, it's chemistry; and if it doesn't work, it's physics.
Pat Keefe, physics instructor at Clatsop Community College, disagrees.
"If I do my job right, these things rarely have a glitch," said Keefe, as he pluged in a motion detector so a computer program could graph the rate of someone walking away. In fact, he said, over the last couple decades technology has changed how physics is taught for the better.
Once, a time-consuming set-up involving strobe lights, Polaroid cameras and precise measurements was necessary to chart a thrown ball's motions; Keefe can now use his favorite toy - a digital movie camera - to capture the ball's position 30 times a second.
"What used to take three hours now takes 10 minutes," Keefe said. "You can do so much more than you could 10 years ago." Instead of focusing on one experiment, students can run a series of experiments and capture the motion of a ballet dancer leaping across the floor or the stride of a sprinter.
"The computer does all the grunt work, and my students are left with thinking about what it means," Keefe said. "By leaps and bounds, this is the way to learn physics."
Keefe studied science knowing that he wanted to teach. After majoring in physics at Baker University in Kansas, he briefly taught junior high in Wichita before moving to Oregon. He earned his master's degree studying cold fusion at Portland State University, filled in for a professor on sabbatical at Clark
College in Vancouver, Wash., and in 1991 became a part-time instructor at Clatsop Community College.
The next year he convinced administrators to give him a 60-percent position, and the following year he taught full time. He teaches general physics and physics with calculus, classes he has fought for over the years.
"I said it's really important to have physics - what's a college without physics?" Keefe said. Last year, budget constraints cut the physics with calculus series, but Keefe found outside funding for the program and is excited to be offering both physics tracks this year in small class sizes that allow for hands-on experiments.
He is also sharing his love of physics and gadgets with younger students. Each summer he trains four high school Upward Bound students to put on science classes for younger kids participating in the Astoria Parks and Recreation science classes.
"There's no agenda,"Keefe said. "We set up the physics room with toys, and let the little students go around and be creative." The older students guide the younger ones in creating moving cyberbugs or using liquid nitrogen to learn about phase changes.
Keefe also leads workshops for high school teachers, including one lesson plan where students develop a realistic energy plan for the United States.
His work with local energy issues revolves around Astoria's 3R program, which encourages people to reduce, reuse and recycle. Keefe said the coordinators of the program are focusing on the difficult task of getting people to produce less trash.
If he has energy left over after teaching about the many aspects of the subject and spending time with his two young children, Keefe said he likes to ride his bike. But with all his activities, time is more of a limiting factor than is energy.
- Kate Ramsayer