Jane Jackson

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Alumni Spotlight

Jane Jackson

BS, MS, and PhD, Physics, Arizona State University

High School Modeling Instruction was recognized with the 2014 Excellence in Physics Education Award of the American Physical Society (APS). The award was presented to Jane Jackson (right), David Hestenes, and Colleen Megowan by then APS president Malcolm R. Beasley (left) at an APS meeting. Photo courtesy of the American Physical Society.What she does:

Jackson helps high school students become “thinkers,” people who can reason based on evidence. Addressing global warming and other 21st-century challenges requires people who can think critically and creatively, see the big picture, and create physical models, according to Jackson. The goal of her work is to prepare students to meet these challenges.

For the last 25 years, Jackson has been codirector of the Modeling Instruction program at Arizona State University(ASU). Modeling instruction is a research-validated teaching method where the classroom becomes a lab and students become scientists. Instead of listening to lectures and working through prescribed experiments or watching a demonstration, students design their own experiments, learn to model physical systems, and confer with one another as scientist peers. “It’s hands-on, minds-on, interactive engagement,” Jackson says.

Through three-week summer professional development workshops, the ASU program instructs teachers how to create modeling classrooms. More than 1000 Arizona science teachers have been through these workshops, as well as hundreds of teachers from other states and even other countries. As codirector, Jackson oversees the entire program. She hires workshop leaders, recruits participants, supports the leaders and participants, and advocates for teacher professional development funding.

How she got there:

As a teenager, Jackson pondered questions like, What is the essence of reality? What is life? What is the essence of being a human? What is the essence of physical reality? After reading The Evolution of Physics by Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, she realized that physics might provide some answers to the last question.

Jackson studied physics at ASU and was active in her local SPS chapter. She recalls her advanced lab class most fondly. “My lab partner and I didn’t understand capacitors, so we chose to make one and take measurements on it. Having the freedom to choose a project, in order to understand, made it memorable,” she says. She stayed on as a graduate student, working toward a PhD in physics while her husband worked toward a PhD in English.

In 1970, Jackson became the first woman to earn a PhD in physics from ASU. Soon after, she relocated to South Dakota because her husband was offered a job at South Dakota State University. Jackson volunteered in the physics department while their children were young and then taught physics for eight years before returning to Arizona. In Arizona, she taught physics and built an astronomy program at Scottsdale Community College.

“In 1991 I learned about ASU modeling instruction,” she says. “I saw that it was [focused on] interactive engagement. It was much better than anything I had been doing. I tried to implement it but failed.” She realized that teachers needed to be trained in modeling instruction in order to be successful. A few years later she received a call from David Hestenes, one of her favorite ASU professors. Hestenes had just received a grant for modeling instruction and needed a project director. The rest, as they say, is history. “I don’t intend to ever retire because I love working with teachers and I love working in physics,” Jackson says.

A message for physics students:

“Persevere,” Jackson says. “Physics is at the heart of 21st-century civilization. Physics is key to understanding and addressing the global climate crisis! Keep the love of the physical world paramount; that’s why we all chose physics (rather than, say, math or biology). Enhance it with understanding; be a lifelong learner and contributor to a better world.”

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