When Dr. Chad Suhr joined the Saint Gertrude community in 2016, he was moderately new to teaching. He had recently completed a Ph.D. in physics, which included a stint at the Large-Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, in Cern, Geneva. Along the way, he also earned a master’s degree in philosophy. A teaching assignment at another independent school was all it took for Dr. Suhr to realize that he loved teaching high school, and within months of joining SGHS, Dr. Suhr quickly endeared himself to students through his wacky humor, intriguing experiments, and innovative teaching methods. We sat down with Dr. Suhr to find out why he likes teaching at an all-girls school, how he brings philosophy into the classroom, and why certain physics assignments are his favorite.
After completing your Ph.D., what made you decide to teach high school?
After I finished grad school, I knew that I didn’t want to stay in research. For me, research had meant sitting in an office being angry with a computer. I really like interacting with people, so I looked into jobs in education—college and high school. In 2014, I was hired to help design and teach a project-based, interdisciplinary curriculum at an independent high school in Charlottesville. I worked on that for two years—one year was spent designing the curriculum, and the other, teaching the pilot year. Those two years were the coolest master’s in education that you could get; it was like a crash tour. The program did not go beyond the pilot year, but I really had a lot of fun and realized that I enjoyed teaching high school.
At a high school, there is an emphasis on relationships with students. I know the kids I teach. I’ve developed a special relationship with them. I can joke with them. And a lot of schools have programs that are really neat. They are trying to do interesting things. There is thought about creative ways to present material.
What is it like to teach at an all-girls school?
This is my first experience with it. Before this, I taught at a coed school. Boys and girls are very different animals. At this age, girls typically have more executive function than boys do, so they are able to make plans and execute them better. I think it’s that functioning that helps with inventiveness. Yes, girls can be a bit boy crazy, but there aren’t boys in the classroom to be crazy about so they don’t have to think about what the boys are thinking and doing. The girls can just be present in the classroom. I’m glad an all-girls education is an option for families.
At SGHS we teach physics freshman year. Many students also take a more advanced physics course their senior year. Why do we teach physics first? How does this benefit our girls?
Physics is really the fundamental science, and understanding principles in physics—force, energy, motion, etc.—are useful in subsequent courses. In the standard biology-chemistry-physics progression, the first time you use much math is in chemistry and the concepts are often a bit more abstract. Not only are the concepts there less familiar, but you can’t always see them in action. Also the hazards of working with chemicals make safety paramount. Physics
concepts can be explored with things like springs, rubber bands, toy cars, and the like, so we can play around a bit more. Also, by teaching physics first, we ensure that everyone takes physics. It’s no longer a junior elective. Everyone is exposed to this fundamental science.
What is your favorite physics assignment?
Senior projects in Physics II are fun. These are quarter-long projects where students construct a product or demonstration and then discuss the physics of what they have built in a group presentation. Last year students built a Rubens’ tube—a tube that is filled with gas and attached to a speaker. The gas is lit on fire, and sound waves cause the flames to vary in height. A Rubens’ tube allows students to see the wave structure of sound. (You can find videos of a Rubens’ tube online.) Of course it’s fire, so it’s cool. This year students are talking about building a hovercraft! More than the actual project, the students have to create their own plan for building and learning, everything from figuring out what they need, what safety precautions they have to take, and what they must understand in order to be an expert on their particular project. This is what most things in real life are like. You have to figure out what you need to do and how to do it. You have to understand enough to know where your knowledge ends and whether that is sufficient for your purpose. It is easy to find information on the Internet and recite it, but much more difficult to explain it in your own words or use it to create something.
How do you bring philosophy into the classroom?
I have always enjoyed philosophy. Philosophy allows a way of thinking about science that is not just about calculation. Science is a certain type of knowledge and it’s important to understand how science relates to other types of knowledge. Philosophy does that. Philosophy is concerned with everything and how different fields fit together. It helps place science alongside other types of knowledge in a cohesive whole, including fields like ethics and religion. Many students share the default assumption of our culture that science and religion are inherently opposed to one another. I want them to see that this is not necessarily the case, that there are ways of integrating these ways of thinking that do justice to both science and religion, and present a rich picture of the world.