BS, Physics, Indiana University South Bend
What he does
As a sixth-grade math teacher in South Bend, Indiana, E-Lexus Thornton taught students about ratios, equations, and how to find the area of a polygon. But that’s not all. “I taught them stuff they wanted to learn,” he explains. “How to save money, what bills were, what credit was, their history.” His lessons often included five-minute sessions on cultural topics relevant to the Latino and Black students who composed his classes.
“When I started [in the fall of 2019], I was told that it was going to be hard,” he explains. “Some kids were coming into middle school without knowing how to add and multiply, without knowing how to read well or even write their name.” Thornton sought all the advice he could and eventually found his stride, talking to kids about football, video games, and musicians—anything to keep them engaged.
The first year of teaching can be rough under normal circumstances, but 2020 brought extraordinary challenges. In March, the COVID-19 pandemic closed school buildings across the United States and forced teachers to take their classes online. Then, in May, racial tensions escalated dramatically when George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a White Minneapolis police officer who is currently being charged with second-degree murder. As a teacher and an activist in the South Bend chapter of Black Lives Matter, Thornton was in the middle of it all.
How he got into physics
Thornton didn’t set out to become a physics major, math teacher, or activist, roles that now define him. Inspired by science fiction, his plan was to become an engineer and work in the space industry. But the summer before he was supposed to start college, reality hit. Having received no guidance on navigating financial aid or scholarships, tuition for the school he planned to attend was simply out of reach.
With September approaching, Thornton started calling schools. Indiana University South Bend was affordable, nearby, and still accepting applications. They didn’t have an engineering bachelor’s program, so he went with physics. Once he got past the introductory courses, he was hooked. “I was doing computations all night,” he recalls. “That’s really where the love [of physics and math] began.”
Navigating a double life
Around the same time, Thornton met Jordon Giger, a local activist and eventual mentor. The two became early members of Black Lives Matter South Bend, which Giger now leads. From this platform they brought local and national attention to injustices in education, home ownership, economics, and policing.
During his senior year, Thornton was president of the Black Student Union and treasurer of SPS while juggling upper-level physics coursework and activism—giving speeches, attending community events, organizing marches, and challenging norms in South Bend. The demands were high. He was exhausted. His grades were suffering. But Thornton says the activism was non-negotiable. He couldn’t ignore the racism, injustice, and brutality being experienced by the Black community. “It got to a point where I was like, ‘I gotta do something because nobody else is.’”
After graduating, Thornton received an unexpected job offer to teach sixth-grade math from an activist colleague and middle school principal with whom he had worked to address the city’s school-to-prison pipeline. He enjoyed teaching and had planned to continue, but instead followed another bend in the road. This fall, Thornton started a PhD program in mechanical engineering at the University of Kentucky, aiming directly for that career in aerospace engineering.
Advice to physics students
To physics students, Thornton offers these words: Network. Develop skills. Ask for help. Stay vigilant. Stay consistent. Work hard. Take an ethics course on another culture. And stay current. Know what’s going on, know how people are feeling right now.