In the halls and about the TFA campus, Neil Harrison is mild mannered and unassuming.
In personal conversation, he is not a person anyone would likely consider garrulous, but when he speaks it is with a precision and insight that belie his relatively young age of 35. He is straightforward and listens attentively. He is also extremely sharp and noticeably clever when given the opportunity.
In the classroom, he is all these things and then some.
As I sat down to speak with “Mr. Harrison”, TFA’s resident physics and calculus teacher extraordinaire, it was obvious that he loves to teach. His classroom can best be described as the FAO Schwarz of physics toys, experimental gadgets, and educational technology. All those toys, gadgets and technology are not just decoration either.
As it turns out, Mr. Harrison has a solid teaching philosophy that he summarizes lightheartedly by saying, “People like to play with toys and so do I”. When prompted to elaborate, he explains, “If you’re using lab equipment that you order from a Vernier (lab) catalog…if you just use that stuff, then you’re not connecting physics to real life, you’re connecting physics to lab equipment.” Among his arsenal of “toys” he uses to connect physics to real life are electronic “snap” boards, hand built catapults, planes that fly in endless circles, whirling magnetic levitating thinga-majigs, rockets (yes, I said rockets), an interactive whiteboard, and electronic polling apps on the iPad.
Perhaps, most intriguing of his “toys” are the technological tools Mr. Harrison employs in his classroom. Mr. Harrison synergistically uses the Class Flow polling app on the student iPads and his Promethean interactive whiteboard to reduce the complexities of high level physics and calculus problems to color-coded and manipulatable component parts. Essentially, a problem is presented on the interactive white board and then sent via “the cloud” to the Class Flow app on student iPads.
From there, students can respond in a variety of ways (multiple choice, written answer, or free draw the solution). Once the student answer is submitted, class results are displayed anonymously on the interactive whiteboard providing students with instant feedback and the teacher with an easy way to assess progress.
This has a dramatic impact on student comprehension, engagement, and investment in the classroom. Senior Andrew Langford testifies, “I’m not a big math and science guy, but I took AP Physics last year and AP Calc this year with [Mr. Harrison] and he makes it really interesting…he does a lot of things that make it interactive and he tries to show how it is used in the real world and that kind of thing – which is nice.”. Langford also points out that he feels the Class Flow polling app reduces anxiety that some students feel with getting incorrect answers because they see that they aren’t alone and that sometimes, the entire class is wrong.
In addition to his classroom duties, Mr. Harrison (who holds a masters degree in materials science and engineering from the University of Florida) also sponsors the TFA S.T.E.M. club. Last year, the TFA S.T.E.M. club (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) built a 3-D printer. This year, Harrison says the club has plans to design and build a solar powered remote controlled vehicle.