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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Professor Profile: Arthur Eisenkraft

When asked why he loves teaching, Arthur Eisenkraft pauses for several seconds. Without realizing it, his face brightens as the subject turns to his students, a reaction that remains consistent each time they are mentioned.

“Perhaps it is hard to explain,” says Eisenkraft, one of UMass Boston’s newest Distinguished Professors and Senior Research Fellows. “It’s just so many things; it’s my whole being.”

Teaching high school his whole life, says Eisenkraft, has been a dream. “The challenge of communicating ideas and getting people interested in physics…I learn from my students, I learn from the questions they ask, I learn because I have to try to communicate.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree in physics from the State University of New York (SUNY), Eisenkraft began his teaching career while volunteering for the Peace Corps in Nepal. While he says he always knew that he wanted to be a teacher, Eisenkraft did not always know that he wanted to teach physics. His first desire was to be a math teacher, but he soon realized that there was something about physics that challenged him more than math. “I never seemed to really get it [physics] and I guess it teased me and I kept wanting to come back to know more,” he says.

Upon leaving the Peace Corps, Prof. Eisenkraft went back to SUNY to earn his master’s degree in Physics Teaching. He then became a physics teacher at Briarcliff High School in New York for the next nine years. During that time, he was president of the Briarcliff Teachers Association and Chair of the Duracell Science Scholarship Competition. In 1984, Eisenkraft received his Ph.D. in Science Education from New York University and began teaching at Fox Lane, a high school in Bedford, New York.

While at Fox Lane, Eisenkraft became involved in a project with the current UMass President Jack Wilson. Both Eisenkraft and Wilson co-created a United States team to participate the International Physics Olympiad, an eight-day competition between the brightest high school students from 40 countries. Wilson was executive director of the American Institute of Physics at the time. “He really conceived of the idea of the United States getting involved and then called on me to see if, in fact, we could do it,” Eisenkraft says.

In addition to helping with the creation of the team, Eisenkraft also helped coach the team for six years, hosted the competition when it was held in the United States in 1993, and helped to create the international exam that the students take as part of the competition.

The United States team won three bronze medals in 1986, their first year competing in the Olympiad. “That was the best any country had ever done on their first try. Now we come in first or second or third in the world,” Eisenkraft says.

In 1989, one U.S. team student came in first in the world, and Eisenkraft, Wilson, and the winning student were invited to the White House to meet the President George H. W. Bush. There, they had a consultation in the Oval Office with the President to discuss what could be done to improve science education.

One year after hosting the International Physics Olympiad, Professor Eisenkraft left Fox Lane High School to become science coordinator and teacher at the Bedford Public Schools in Bedford, New York. While at Bedford High, he began working on a curriculum project called Active Physics, which received grants for research from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The project seeks to make physics applicable and interesting to students so that they not only learn the material, but also understand how it applies to their daily lives.

“When kids do like school, and all kids like something about school at some point, at some time, not for a long time, what is it they liked about school, and when you know that, can you then make your physics course cater to those interests that students have,” Eisenkraft says. “So what we do in Active Physics is we set the challenge for the students on Day One. For instance, can you make a light and sound show that will entertain your friends?”

In 2002, Eisenkraft left the Bedford Public schools to work on another curriculum project called Active Chemistry, with Professor Hannah Sevian from the Curriculum and Instruction department at UMass Boston. The project applies the same doctrine of the Active Physics program to Chemistry and is currently being used by over 5,000 students in the U.S as a test to see if the curriculum works.

He is also working on revisions of the Active Physics program, which once they are finished, will be published in 2005. According to Eisenkraft, over one million students are now learning with the Active Physics program, including some in the Boston Public Schools system.

Eisenkraft has also helped UMass Boston to attain an NSF grant of $12.5 million to help start the Boston Science Partnership, a five-year science education reform program in collaboration with Northeastern University that will provide teacher training and course development for the Boston Public Schools.

At a press conference last week announcing the grant, Wilson noted that Eisenkraft was looking at joining up with Harvard University, where he has two sons. Wilson convinced him to come to UMass Boston instead.

“I’ve been working at the Boston Public Schools with the Active Physics curriculum, and I think that here we have a campus that wants to build a bridge between the university and the Boston Public Schools,” Eisenkraft says. “Nobody has been able to make an urban educational system work in a way that we hope they will work. I think we can do it in Boston. I think the Boston Public Schools are ready to do it and I think UMass can play a part and so it’s very exciting to be here to participate in that.”