APS News

September 2023 (Volume 32, Number 9)

Teaching is a “Squishy, Unpredictable Science,” Says the 2023 Physics Teacher of the Year. You Should Try It.

Joe Cossette, engineer-turned-educator and PhysTEC Teacher of the Year, discusses trials and triumphs in the classroom.

By Taryn MacKinney | August 10, 2023

Joe Cossette commencement graduation
Credit: Minnetonka Public Schools

Joe Cossette gives a commencement address to the Minnetonka High School graduating class of 2022.

Joe Cossette just won a big award, and he feels a little weird about it.

“Teaching is a communal pursuit,” he says. “It feels odd to get individual recognition.”

Cossette, a Minnesota native, bowtie superfan, and International Baccalaureate (IB) physics high school teacher at Minnetonka High School in Minnesota, was named the 2023 PhysTEC Teacher of the Year, an award that recognizes outstanding physics educators.

Although it’s an honor, he says, “I feel like my ideas are just iterations of someone else's cool idea.”

But Cossette’s iterations are remarkable, from virtual labs to physics murder mysteries. In just five years, he helped grow the school’s IB physics classes from 12 students to 120 students. His website, Passionately Curious Science, where he shares lesson plans and tips, attracts 90,000 visitors each year.

Teaching is hard work, but “I get to play all the time,” he says. He certainly seems to have fun: Consider his physics-themed parody of the singer Adele’s 2015 hit “Hello” ("Hello, it's ‘v’… Take the distance over time, to calculate velocity…”).

APS News spoke with Cossette about his career path and thoughts on the profession. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

You worked as an engineer before you became a teacher. Why the shift?

I went to college for mechanical engineering and then worked for a couple years as a mechanical development engineer. I enjoyed it, but my favorite day of the year was being a guest judge at the state science fair. I was having a ton of fun, and I realized that could be my whole job — to talk to students and get excited about the science they're excited about.

I looked up programs at the University of Minnesota for people that already had a four-year technical degree, but needed the education piece. It felt right, so I made the switch. I'm going into year 10 of teaching. I teach ninth and 12th grade, so I bookend their science career.

I've heard you’re famous for wearing bow ties. Why bow ties?

I started as a fairly young teacher, teaching mostly seniors in a large school — 3,500 students. I wanted a way that people could realize I was not a student. I thought, “I can wear a bow tie. A student wouldn't wear a bow tie.” Now I’m up to at least 50 bow ties. My goal every year is to make it as long into the school year as I can before I re-wear a bow tie.

How would you describe your approach to teaching?

The overarching theme is collaboration — whether creative group work, like a murder mystery or an escape room, or a quiz that adds layers of collaboration throughout. Sometimes it takes a while to build trust, where students are willing to go along with a crazy idea I have. But that's my goal.

I also try to be conscientious of common, destructive tropes. For example, a lot of people have an idea of what a physicist “looks like.” That trickles down to students, who have learned, often before they get to my class, that they are or are not what someone looks like or is like to succeed in physics. That's frustrating because if all physicists were of one style, we would be missing out on important discoveries.

Often, the students left behind are the students seen as more liberal-arts-minded. In my classroom, I value students who think in creative ways and see the problem as not just a math equation, but as a story, or find a new way to represent an idea.

What topics are most exciting to you personally?

The IB curriculum allows us to cover a large breadth of content, and I've gotten to teach particle physics and astrophysics, which is not something I ever learned. I approach it as a learner, like they do — I was trying to figure out how to share the thing I'm learning now with students tomorrow. That changed the way I teach all things, because it reminds me of the challenges and motivations of learning.

Another topic is climate change. High school students know it's important; you don't have to convince them. Getting to talk about something they already want to know more about has been a joy.

What day-to-day challenges do you face?

Teaching is a squishy, unpredictable science. I’ll do the same thing in second and third period and get dramatically different results, because my students aren’t robots and don't learn in the same ways.

The most challenging thing is finding ways to meet the different needs in my classroom. Sometimes it’s based on background knowledge. There are students that come in with a strong math background and students who do not, and their needs are different. I need to be able to provide the right scaffolding, so each of those students can understand the things we're talking about.

COVID has added to that in unpredictable ways. My seniors last year were in ninth grade when we went online for COVID. I saw incorrect answers I had never seen before — math errors that had never come up. It was because of holes in their experience in ninth or 10th grade algebra.

Are there lessons from teaching during the pandemic that you’ve carried into your classroom today?

It feels like drinking from a firehose sometimes. We have stuff we built before COVID and during COVID, and now we're constantly choosing between them. Do we do this stuff from four years ago that we loved, or do we do the thing that we built brand-new two years ago and loved? Did it work because it was online, or because it was a good task?

Before, we could just provide new teachers with a folder and say, “This is what we've done.” Now we're giving them four years of folders, where every folder is different, and saying, “We'll probably pick from these things.” It’s been an interesting challenge.

Are there students you taught who pursued physics or teaching after high school?

I have one or two students each year that didn't really know what physics was but leave planning on majoring in physics. I'm always nervous that their experience in college is going to be different than their experience in my classroom, but I'm excited to hear from those students.

I also have a former student who is starting her first year of physics teaching next year. I've talked with her a number of times, and she's part of an IB physics class Facebook group. I see her posting things to share with others, and it's just very exciting.

As you know, the US has a shortage of high school physics teachers. Have you personally experienced this?

I’m fortunate — my school is kind of a unicorn school for physics teachers. In our science department, 10 of us have a physics teaching license. Not a common story, right? Most physics teachers that I come across are often the only one in their school. That's an isolating position to be in.

Something that I think helps with that is finding ways to connect with other physics teachers. I’ve found physics communities through Twitter and Facebook and email lists, or within a small district area. In Minnesota, we have GO4ST8 Physics. All the physics teachers in the state can get together and talk physics every other month.

But that doesn't necessarily recruit teachers. It helps teachers once they're teaching, but nobody is going to go into teaching because an online community of teachers exists.

What would help with recruitment?

I think people go into teaching physics because they see it's fun. I'm constantly learning and getting to play, and that's just fun. I didn't feel like I got that as an engineer, but I do as a teacher. Being able to share those stories, I think, is how people become teachers.

And I still get to interact with all the different topics within physics. When I was working as an engineer, I became specialized and didn't get to do that.

In addition to being able to explore all these different realms, I get to introduce them for the first time to someone else. I'm a dad to a three- and five-year-old, and I love taking them to places that I enjoyed as a kid, like the amusement park in the Twin Cities. I get to re-experience, through them, what it's like to see it for the first time.

In teaching, I get to do that all the time. I've taught the same lessons many times, but every time is the students’ first time. I get to see it with them. That's really fun to do, and I wish I could share that with more people.

Taryn MacKinney is the Editor of APS News.

Read more:

Learn about the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) at phystec.org/.

High School Students “Go Quantum” with Virtual Visit From Physicist (APS News, June 2023)

Want to Teach Physics? PhysTEC Teachers of the Year Have Advice (APS News, May 2023)

Danielle Buggé Wants High Schoolers to “Fail Productively” in Physics (APS News, September 2022)

PhysTEC Announces New 2022 Inductees to The 5+Club (APS News & Announcements, December 2022)

March Meeting Brings a Physics Fiesta to Chicago School (APS News, June 2022)

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Taryn MacKinney

September 2023 (Volume 32, Number 9)

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Articles in this Issue
“I Get Goosebumps Still”: Angela Stickle, DART Mission Scientist, Reflects on Humanity’s First Effort to Change an Asteroid’s Orbit
This Month in Physics History
Teaching is a “Squishy, Unpredictable Science,” Says the 2023 Physics Teacher of the Year. You Should Try It.
Two New Anthologies Will Share the Stories of Women in Fluid Dynamics
The Neurophysicist Trying to Tackle Jet Lag Ahead of the World’s Longest Flights
Opinion: Is Climate Science Physics?
Congress Scrambles to Steer AI Development