Paul DeVoe’s physics classes are about more than monitoring quasars with a radio telescope, determining trajectories and solving equations. In the middle of a pandemic it’s also important to the Redlands High School teacher that his students have hope and learn how to think for themselves.
On Jan. 24, DeVoe was one of eight nominees from Corona to Blythe at the California League of High Schools District 10 Educator of the Year ceremony, held virtually due to coronavirus precautions.
He didn’t take home the title, which went to Keith Brockie, an art teacher at Arroyo Valley High in San Bernardino, but DeVoe was the only educator of the group to mention having students send experiments to the International Space Station.
DeVoe, who has been teaching for more than three decades, told attendees about his favorite parts of teaching, starting with “the joy of seeing the spark of a student understanding something.”
Currently his students are monitoring air quality, taking photos and explaining the physics behind them, programming robots to navigate a maze, making holograms, soldering together radios, building and demonstrating their own musical instruments, and more.
Twice in the past two years his students sent an experiment to the space station through the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program comparing the effect of zero gravity on lemongrass growth.
Maximilian Floridia, a former student who led the crew working on that experiment, said the most important lesson he learned from his teacher “is how exciting, practical, and collaborative science can be.”
In an emailed statement, he called DeVoe’s class inspiring.
While working on the project, Floridia wrote, DeVoe “approached our research with a strong curiosity that often fostered discussions and made us want to continue experimenting.”
Honors Physics and AP Physics student Kailana Nishiura was also inspired.
“One of the most eye-opening moments for me was when I used mathematical formulas to predict the landing spot of a projectile before it was shot,” Nishiura said in an emailed statement. “I had never done anything like this before, and it was exciting to see how knowledge could be applied directly to real life.”
Ben Otter, class of 2023, said in an emailed statement that he couldn’t remember the last time DeVoe lectured to his students.
“Rather, we learn by discovery,” Otter wrote. While physics is about equations, “we observe to understand and by the end, we’ve figured out the equations ourselves.”
At the awards ceremony earlier this month, Redlands Unified officials noted DeVoe has worked to improve the percentage of female students taking AP physics from under 20% when the course was first offered to now more than 50%, and during distance learning, he launched a professional development workshop for district science teachers.
Physics course instructors must have a teaching credential in physics, which few teachers have, Principal Kate Van Luven said in an emailed statement.
“In order to expand physics offerings throughout the high schools in Redlands, Mr. DeVoe is helping to lead the charge to provide training,” she added.
Hours before the Jan. 24 awards ceremony DeVoe had presented the space station experiment to elementary, middle and high school students to garner proposals for this year’s launch in May. The winning Redlands project will join 23 other projects from students as close as Moreno Valley and Perris and as far as Canada and the Ukraine.
Teaching is essential, DeVoe told awards ceremony viewers.
“There are many opinions masquerading as facts and facts that many think are opinions,” he said. “Part of what I do is show students how we know what we know, and indeed how much we really don’t know. I try to provide a sort of nonsense detector so students can detect propaganda. I also try to provide hope.”
The pandemic and climate change can be overwhelming to students, he said, “but the pandemic will end, and there are solutions to our problems. Part of my job is to stay positive about the future and tell students about some of these solutions.”
Increasing solar efficiency, nuclear fusion and other technologies mean the world could indeed start cutting its fossil fuel usage, he said in an email.
“Hope is especially important to our students because they need to know that they have a future, a bright future where they can contribute and find satisfaction in that contribution,” he said. “They only need to be adaptable and be ready to learn what needs to be learned and gain the courage from their convictions to act.”