Teacher of the Month: Shawn Burdick
The Teacher of the Month series runs for the next eight months in partnership with Berkshire Community College.
Burdick has been working as a teacher for 25 years but his path to this career wasn't a straight line. He worked in the physics research field for a number of years prior to becoming a teacher.
He studied physics at Williams College and moved on to get a doctorate degree in physics from Boston University.
But his inclination for education surfaced during his experience as a graduate student teaching fellow when he won the Best Teaching Fellow Award.
Following graduate school, he was offered a position as an assistant professor but decided to accept a job as an astrophysics researcher and consulted on rockets for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
He first worked with the consulting firm General Research Corp. but later his team moved to a smaller company called Frontier Technology Inc.
In 1990, he was awarded the NASA Outstanding Achievement Award for calibration and analysis of the Cosmic Background Explorer spacecraft (which measured microwave radiation) and of the Diffuse Infrared Background Experiment on the COBE.
While consulting for NASA, Burdick studied the Big Bang with astrophysicists John Mather and George Smoot. Mather and Smoot won the Nobel Prize in 2006 for their work on the Big Bang and the early evolution of our universe.
Having experience working in the field prior to becoming a teacher gives him a unique perspective because it allows him to know what it’s like to do science, research, and understands the goal they are moving towards, Burdick said.
"I'm actually kind of proud to say that, over the years, an inordinate number of graduates from Mount Greylock have decided they want to major in physics in college more than you would ever possibly expect and I kind of think of that as they must have liked it. I must be doing a good job. I'm getting them excited about it," Burdick said.
Burdick always knew he wanted to be a teacher but originally thought he would work as a professor. He figured he would work as a researcher for a few years and then become a professor but the universe had another idea.
In 1999, at the age of 40, Burdick and his wife were starting to have a family and he wanted the opportunity to spend more time with them. So, he decided to go down a new path as a high school teacher.
Burdick comes from a long line of teachers with many members of his family working in the education field including his mother and father, son, daughter and two of his nephews, among others.
Both his sister and son work at Mount Greylock. His sister was a middle school teacher but is now the librarian and his son is a teacher.
"In many ways teaching was the family business in my family. So, I always kind of thought I might like to be a teacher," Burdick said.
Although he works in the high school, he was also a visiting professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts from 2003 until 2011.
Burdick wants to teach students to think like a scientist, to think in a logical, rational way so that they can make informed decisions later in life whether it is based on their career or causes they want to be part of.
He doesn’t just teach physics and astronomy. He is also teaching or has taught earth science, climate science, and environmental science, so the students can understand how "we as humans are part of the world around us."
It is clear based on how the students are willing to ask questions during and before class that Burdick is making an impact.
"Dr. Burdick is passionate about physics. He makes physics fun, which is no small feat. He is willing to help students after class. He pushes everyone to their fullest potential," former student and nominator Nina Wied said.
Principal Jacob Schutz said Burdick lives physics and science.
"Folks say that he eats physics for breakfast, lunch and dinner. So it's something he's very passionate about. It's something that it's easy for students to engage in because of his passion. He's really a steward of the profession, and scientists at heart," Schutz said.
"He is very rigorous, but at the same hand, he's great at developing relationships, understanding where students are and meeting where they're at, and challenging them to their fullest potential."
Grade 9 class Secretary Leo Slater Lee and President Nolan Barnes have been in Burdick's physics class for a month. They said he makes the material understandable and is willing to answer any questions they have.
When he goes through the chapter at the beginning of the unit, it gives students a general knowledge and working independently allows them to gain a deeper understanding of the topic that they would not get just by reading the book, Barnes said.
"I really like his teaching style. It matches me as a learner. It helps me learn a lot better than some other classes," Barnes said.
Lee echoed these remarks, adding "if we read it and we don't fully understand it. What he says will usually help explain it."
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