Marine Turned Teacher Honored For Inspiring Minority Students to Succeed at Science

This week four educators from around the country were awarded the $25,000 Fishman Prize, which spotlights excellence in teaching and the effective practices of educators working in high-poverty public schools.

NEA member Michael Towne, a physics and engineering teacher at Citrus Hill High School in Perris, CA, is one of the four educators granted the award by The New Teacher Project (TNTP), who received nearly 4,300 nominations and over 820 applications from teachers in 46 states.

Following careers in the U.S. Marine Corps and as a small business owner, Towne joined the teaching profession in 2001. When he first arrived at Citrus Hill, a 1,700-student school about an hour east of Los Angeles, only 41 students were enrolled in Physics and none in Engineering. He responded by developing a new Physics and Engineering program from scratch, increasing enrollment to over 350 students in 8 years while maintaining the highest standardized test scores for any subject in the district. In 2012, of all the Mexican-American students passing the AP Physics C exam in California, one-quarter came from Towne’s classroom.

In 2013, Towne spoke before Congress advocating for increased access to AP Physics, and he pursuing a Ph.D. in education, society, and culture from the University of California, specifically focusing on access and equity for ethnic minority students in science.

NEA Today caught up with the Fishman Prize winner to ask him about his teaching practice and success with high-needs students in science.

How did the Marine Corps prepare you for teaching?

Marines always know they can rely on each other. This is one thing I try to inculcate in my students — I want them to rely on each other. We meet after school four to five days per week and current students help each other with problem solutions while former students attending local universities come back to tutor as part of our outreach program. I also provide extra help for students, and the environment builds a feeling of mutual reliance and responsibility for each other.

Teacher Michael Towne with his students.

The science program you built is clearly very effective. What makes it stand out from other programs?

The unique thing about my physics and engineering program is that we do not exclude students based on arbitrary criteria such as test scores or grade point averages. In other words, I believe it is possible for students who would not traditionally qualify for a physics program to succeed if given appropriate support. Students who are willing to work hard are accepted into the program even if they have not met traditional criteria, such as passing algebra classes. Last year, 40 percent of the students in my calculus-based physics class had failing scores in their standardized math tests. When they left the program, the majority of them had dramatically improved their math scores, and the majority of students also passed the AP Physics exam.

Another unique aspect of the program is our interdisciplinary approach. We mix the applied science disciplines together to solve complex problems, so teams of students may include members of the applied biology, applied chemistry and applied physics classes as well as engineering students.

A quarter of successful Mexican-American science students in California come from your classroom. What can other programs learn from yours?

While it’s true that 26 percent of the Mexican-American students who passed the AP Physics Electricity and Magnetism exam in California came from my classroom, the bigger story in this statistic is that we could never have this big of an impact on the percentage of students if all schools serving Mexican-American students were to provide quality programs. Most schools provide no program at all. So that statistic says more about the lack of access for Mexican-American students across our state than it does about my program. What my program proves is, given the appropriate access and support, students will succeed regardless of their backgrounds.

It can be especially difficult to engage and inspire disadvantaged teens, yet you have done so with the majority of your students. What are your strategies?

I inspire students to achieve by showing them an avenue for success. Physics students are not born with knowledge; they develop it through work and perseverance. I provide the support and structure for their learning and they provide the work. Together we succeed.

I want my students to know I believe in their ability but I will not excuse their performance based on disadvantage. Instead, every disadvantage needs to be overcome by a plan of action. Once students understand that every obstacle has a solution, we change our mindset from, “I can’t do this because I am not smart enough,” to a more pragmatic, “What do I need to do to overcome this temporary deficiency?” This is a much more positive approach, but it takes time, patience and persistence. I provide the time with after school study sessions and the students provide the persistence.

Also, many students have a poor self-image. They often do not visualize themselves as science students. Our job is to change the way they see themselves. A program like this is my solution to the pervasive problem of students convincing themselves that advanced science and engineering is only for a select few elite students. With the right access and support, all students have the option to be an engineer or scientist. I want all students to choose for themselves, but the choice should not come by the time they are 14 when they somehow convince themselves they are too dumb. Instead, I want them to keep their options open, even when they are told their options are limited. Like Erica Romero. One of her teachers last year told her, “Girls like you don’t major in physics.” She came to me in tears, with a crisis in confidence that drove her to question her plans. Today she has a scholarship to UCLA in physics.