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Teacher of the Month: Allan Finch



NMSI’s Teacher of the Month celebrates our amazing teachers, consultants and mentors for their work in and out of the classroom. In April, we sat down with Allan Finch, an AP Physics teacher at Creative and Performing Arts High School in Pittsburgh, PA to hear how he is applying his real-world experiences as an architectural engineer to his classroom.  


A roller coaster zooms past a student and comes to a stop. The student carefully examines the coaster, scribbles notes on a notepad and resets the experiment.

This may sound like an exciting scene at a theme park field trip. However, for AP Physics 2 students at Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts High School, it’s just another day in Allan Finch’s classroom.

When Finch started his career as an architectural engineer, he never expected to end up back in the classroom. After years of working in mechanical engineering, Finch went back to school – this time as a teacher.

“I wanted to bring some practicality into the classroom,” said Finch, who also works as a consultant for NMSI’s College Readiness Program. “I wanted to be able to motivate students to go into a STEM field and bring my experience from the real world back into the classroom.”

Developing hands-on lessons allows students to relate to what they’re learning in the classroom. Finch said that he tries to relate what his students are learning to their everyday experiences and change it up from a textbook problem.

“Everything is a problem,” Finch explained. “Everything was designed to perform a task, so I try to encourage my students to look at it from that standpoint and make those connections. It makes them think about what’s really going on and why it’s happening.”

That’s where the roller coasters come in. This popular NMSI-designed lesson encourages students to apply what they have learned in the classroom to a real-world scenario. By building and testing the tracks, students are challenged to determine the best release point for the roller coaster car, analyze vertical loops and measure the impact of friction and kinetic energy.

“They sometimes flounder for a while and struggle to determine which pieces to put together to achieve their end goal, but they eventually start to figure out what works and what factors to take into consideration.” Finch said. “They have to explain their thought process and their calculations, so having to think through this often really ties in a lot of the concepts they’ve learned in class.”

In addition to challenging students in the classroom, hands-on lessons like this one also equip students with valuable skills they will use in their careers.

“In the real world, you’re having to figure out what information you need to know,“ Finch said. “So, you really need those collaboration and critical-thinking skills to be able to work with those around you to solve a problem.”

Finch serves as one of NMSI’s top-notch consultants who travel around the country working with AP students during extra study sessions on Saturdays. During the sessions, students have the opportunity to review and ask questions about subjects with teachers who they don’t see every day to give them even more preparation for the AP exams.

“The presentation and discussion of topics from a different voice to reinforce the same concepts is wonderfully received, and I feel very beneficial to the student’s learning,” Finch said. “The students are very appreciative and benefit from the review sessions. In addition, I have learned from hearing from students and their teachers about how they have presented or learned concepts that I can incorporate into my practice to make me a better teacher for my students.”

Students who leave Finch’s class have the skills necessary to thrive throughout the rest of their educational careers and beyond. While his students may not be aware of how helpful these skills are at the time, they eventually realize how impactful they are and it is those moments of realization that continue to inspire Finch.

 “I’ve had students get in touch with me after going to college to say that they struggled all year (in my class) but got to college and were able to apply something that we learned in class to their coursework,” he said.

Even if the students don’t go on to pursue a degree in math or science, the skills gained in Finch’s classroom stick with them for the rest of their lives.

“I’m a big believer that we are those who have come before us,” Finch said. “So, I like the idea that I have at least been a small part of my students lives and that I’ve influenced them throughout their lives.”

Finch said seeing and hearing the lasting impact that his lessons have on his students continues to validate his choice to go back to school.  

 



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