Rolling Hills Teacher Honored for Putting Energy Into Physics

Times Staff Writer

Physics teacher John H. McGehee believes it may have been his "diversity" that helped him win a presidential award for excellence in science teaching that is given to only one Californian each year.

The 48-year-old McGehee--a bearded man with an easy grin who describes himself as an an "off-the-wall guy who likes to joke around"--has been a teacher at Rolling Hills High School for 18 years, but he has influenced thousands of students from other schools.

Last year, 4,000 students from 180 high schools participated in the annual "Physics Students Day" at Magic Mountain that McGehee organized and in which thrill rides are used to solve problems about acceleration, energy and free fall.

Since 1960, McGehee also has been associated with TRW in Redondo Beach, where he does research part time in laser photography. Another sidelight is conducting workshops in which he trains others in the teaching of physics.

Photo Business

And a few years ago, McGehee created a home business by reproducing and selling sepia-toned pictures of the South Bay past at shops and street festivals.

"I guess I'm just enthusiastic and interested in lot of things," said the self-described "high-energy, turned-on person."

A Manhattan Beach resident, McGehee has been awarded one-half of the state's Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching. "I was down at the Manhattan Beach Home Town Fair, selling my photos, when my wife rushed up, sat a bottle of champagne on my table, and handed me a letter from the White House. It was very exciting," McGehee said.

The math prize went to Sheila Berman, a teacher at Patrick Henry Junior High School in Granada Hills. The two will receive their awards next week in Washington, D.C., during four days of receptions and seminars.

Representative of Teachers

"The winners are representatives of all outstanding teachers in the state," said Melinda Jan, a science consultant with the state Department of Education and California chairwoman for the presidential awards. "Typically, a person who wins is not only a dynamic teacher in the classroom and receives wide support from students and colleagues, but they also show professionalism within their fields." She said McGehee was singled out for his work with other teachers and the Magic Mountain project.

In the face of a teacher shortage three years ago, the Reagan Administration established the awards under the auspices of the National Science Foundation to honor science and math teachers--and to encourage them to stay in the field. The annual awards go to two people in each state who are chosen by a national panel of science and math teachers. About 300 Californians were nominated for the science award.

McGehee said the award is "the biggest thing ever to happen to me. I feel I've been successful with students, but to have your comrades say you're doing a good job is really neat."

It's also a big thing for Rolling Hills High School and for the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, whose superintendent, Jack Price, nominated McGehee for the honor. The high school will receive a $5,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, which McGehee hopes will be used to restore an electronics program that the financially strapped district cut a few years ago. School officials said that will be up to the school board.

'The Extra Mile'

"John is one of the best teachers I've ever seen," Price said. "He is a fine person, consistent, always up, always interested in what he can do for kids, and he's always willing to go the extra mile."

"I have a hell of a good time in class because it's something I enjoy," McGehee said. "Teachers are actors, hams."

McGehee is strong on laboratory demonstrations and on taking his students through physics problems in back-and-forth discussions that lead to right answers.

Humor is sprinkled through his quizzes because, he says, it's the best way to keep students interested. One acceleration problem featured a pregnant armadillo about to be impaled by a flying Excalibur.

"This makes you enjoy the problems," said 17-year-old Peter Alperin. "If teaching isn't interesting, you fall asleep, get bored and get bad grades."

Alperin gets A's in McGehee's class.

Educational Cartoons

In McGehee's classroom, a blowup photo of Einstein and a color spectrum chart mingle with cartoons. In one, Snoopy flies off Charlie Brown's head when Charlie stops, illustrating the Newtonian point that an object in motion tends to stay in motion. And there is this formal announcement: "The Atomic Energy Commission wishes to announce that your home has been selected as the site for its next nuclear test. The director of the commission hereby advises you to run like hell."

As a teacher, McGehee said, his first goal is to give students an understanding of science as a process through the interplay of theory and experimentation. That's the point of the Magic Mountain trip, where students ride the rides and calculate acceleration: "I tell them they've done the dry book work, and now here's the real world. Let's measure some of this stuff. Hopefully, it means more to them."

McGehee said all of his activities ultimately lead to his classroom, which is "No. 1."

"I work at TRW because it gives me research opportunities to learn something I can bring back go school. They also gave me lab time to rewrite a workbook, and paid me to do it. A lot of teachers did things for me when I got started, and my responsibility in the workshops I do is to do the same thing for the next group."

Better-Paying Jobs

Despite the intent of the presidential award--to keep people teaching and encourage others to enter the field--he said teachers still are leaving for better-paying jobs with aerospace and engineering companies and "the number of science and math majors desiring to teach is minuscule."

"The state of physics teaching in high schools is pretty darned good, but the big problem is that all of us are 50, or getting close to 50," he said. "There aren't many young faces, and that's the problem. When I talk to students, I say, 'Don't forget there will be good opportunities to go into science teaching.' But the response I get is the salary: 'Hey, what do you mean, I can go out with a science degree and get twice as much from business to start.' "

McGehee says the love of teaching keeps science and math people in the classroom. And he is proof that even national honors don't translate into big paychecks.

As a teacher in a school district with declining enrollment and dwindling income, he earns $34,000 a year "and maybe a third more through TRW and the photo business."

Extra Income

"The photo business has paid for our vacations, and keeping the kids in ski clothes," he joked.

McGehee's wife, Susan, whom he calls "one of my greatest supporters," works part time as a school improvement coordinator with the Torrance school system. "I have cheap house payments and I drive a '59 Volkswagen, the only new car I've ever had," McGehee said.

He concedes that many of his colleagues in Rolling Hills have morale problems because of low salaries and the deterioration of textbooks and laboratory equipment. He urges them to do what he did with TRW--establish contacts with industry in their fields and work during the summer. A furlough program also could be developed to give temporary jobs in industry to teachers who "feel stale and burnt out."

As for himself, McGehee said, "I'm always busy and don't have time to sit around and think about how miserable things are. . . . I highly enjoy what I do and I wouldn't do something else for twice the price. Of course, I can say that because I have a 6% mortgage on my house."

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