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by Ellie Spielberg | November 1, 2012 New York Teacher issue
There was a time when Ben Mikesh experienced life as the only redhead in Takikawa, a city on the cold island of Hokkaido in northern Japan. The one foreign English teacher in town, he went from middle school to middle school while people gave him curious looks and children out-and-out stared.
Now the fourth-year teacher is happily firing off cannonballs — as part of a physics demonstration — in his Manhattan classroom at Bard HS Early College and is really, really excited about the Higgs boson fundamental particle.
The adventurous, ever-curious Mikesh started life in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, traveling to Chile during high school to study abroad. His graduate degree in physics led him to the world of university science research (lonely), so he decided to work for a software company in Seattle (yawn) while applying to law school there, became an intellectual-property lawyer (doubly lonely) and got engaged to a homesick New Yorker.
When he worked briefly on the side as a translator of Japanese documents, Mikesh got letters from his mother, who was a Hebrew and Sunday school teacher, and from his future in-laws, both of whom were New York City public school teachers, saying, “Ben, why are you doing this? You really should go into teaching.”
So, after completing the Teaching Fellows program, Mikesh interviewed at Bard HS and was hired.
“They like people with wacky backgrounds,” he said. “Plus I do have a lot of education,” he added as an afterthought. It turns out that some of that education includes Brown University and Harvard Law School.
But the Ivy League is far from this physicist’s mind as he works with city kids in a career “that I have loved since the first day in 2009,” he said. His world is now about a classroom filled with flying mini-cannonballs, falling objects and slow-motion videos, especially in his conceptual physics classes for 9th-graders who will also take calculus in school.
“Those demonstrations are important because Newton invented calculus in order to solve physics problems,” Mikesh said, siding with Sir Isaac, and not Gottfried, in the ongoing Newton-Leibniz controversy surrounding the origins of that branch of mathematics.
The solving of physics and calculus problems, however, is mostly reserved for his “very math-intensive, fast-paced senior elective called physics with calculus,” said Mikesh. “The conceptual class is more about students being able to communicate their understanding of the fundamental laws of physics.”
Mikesh said that although Bard is a selective school with an intense application process, “it is not one of the specialty high schools and has a liberal arts curriculum. Incoming students are not self-selecting in terms of a science or math career.” So Mikesh has to make physics understandable and interesting to freshmen.
Most of his prep time is spent designing demonstrations. His kids spend most of their time writing, “communicating ideas in actual English instead of hiding behind mathematical formulas without really knowing why or how things happen,” he said.
The beauty of physics, according to Mikesh, “is actually being able to say I understand why things happen with a reasonably high degree of certainty. There’s very little in life that is like that. We know enough about how the universe works to land a robot on Mars perfectly from a few million miles away. That, to me, is incredibly satisfying.”
He adds that humankind is far from done in terms of understanding the universe, and cites that scientists at the famous Cern research lab in Geneva believe they have found a new fundamental particle that a British theoretical physicist, Peter Higgs, and his colleagues predicted the existence of years ago.
Mikesh is thrilled about the Higgs boson particle, and along with other people who know about things such as that particle and the Newton-Leibniz controversy, he has his fingers crossed that Higgs will one day win a well-deserved Nobel Prize.
Meanwhile, Mikesh has kids to teach.
The beauty of teaching, he said, is that it’s creative, never monotonous, and thrilling when students suddenly understand a concept.
“Also, although I have a lot to learn, I feel I’m good at it, and feeling good about what you are doing is very important,” said the formerly unsatisfied research physicist, software company employee, Japanese document translator and lawyer.