Upper School Physics teacher Marguerite McKean ’04 is helping students become science-literate while also developing their cross-disciplinary skills–improving their ability to communicate findings and ask questions in a meaningful way.
Marguerite McKean ’04 attended Catlin Gabel for Upper School and graduated from Mt. Holyoke College with a B.A. in English. ;In college, she studied Mandarin and Arabic, and post-college she taught English in China and science and math in Indonesia. Back in Portland, she became a Senior Educator and curriculum developer at OMSI planetarium, which inspired her to continue her formal education in science. She earned her Post-Baccalaureate in Physics and Masters in Education from Portland State University. Marguerite taught Physics at West Salem High in Salem for four years before joining the Upper School Science faculty at Catlin Gabel in fall 2021.
The following are excerpts from an interview with Marguerite in October 2021.
As an Upper School student at Catlin, I was actually pretty good at science. I took advanced biology, I went to the Intel expo and placed pretty well in my division, and things like that. I was sort of a science kid. But I came out of Catlin fairly convinced that I was not very good at math.
I think that my self-perception of not being a math person came from the fact that I wasn’t as good at it as a lot of my classmates, and I wasn’t as good at it as I was at other things. I came out with this sense of, oh, that’s not for me. It took me until I was in my mid-twenties to come back around and say, no, I think I’m going to try this again. I’m going to learn this.
It really came from that sense of being a Catlin kid—a lifelong learner. Thinking, this is something I don’t know; let’s go ahead and try this. It turned out I was actually pretty good at it. And that journey was helpful for me in terms of guiding students who feel like they’re not science-ready or not math kids. I can say, Hey, I thought the same thing. Let’s build these skills anyway, and then you’ll have them. And maybe something will strike your interest or maybe it won’t, but you’ll at least be science literate. That’s very important to me.
There are a lot of life skills in science education. Things like being able to analyze data, communicate findings, and ask questions in a meaningful way. And we do focus on that in my science classes, in this particular discipline, but those are all skills that are cross-disciplinary. Those are skills that are very similar to what you are doing when you're examining a primary source text in history and looking for evidence in it. It’s very much like writing an argument in English, writing a persuasive essay. So one of the things that I want to have students take away from our science classrooms is that sense that those skills are not siloed from each other. They’re just different applications of similar skills.
When I started studying physics, it changed the way my brain worked—the things that I now ask questions about and think about on a surface level. Such as understanding acceleration and how things stop and slow down when they are, for example, very large vehicles. I feel like that’s a very good thing for teenagers to know, because when you are still developing your prefrontal cortex and don’t necessarily have all of the decision-making paradigm worked out, you can at least point to something and be like, well, it’s not possible for a large vehicle to stop in that short of an amount of time, because physics. That’s useful. That’s a good thing that everyone should know.
I think that physics, and science in general, are very good places to learn how to ask those questions. And also to have a clear sense of when something has been put in front of me that I don’t understand. Instead of that shutting me down and saying, I don’t know how to do that, I can say, How do I solve this problem? Being able to approach a problem with a certain mindset. Instead of, I can’t do this, it’s, I just don’t know how to do this yet. I think that that’s an extremely useful attitude to walk through life with. And that’s what makes us lifelong learners.