The “Doctor” Is In

March 1, 2006

His students call him “Doc Welsh,” in deference to his degree in veterinary medicine. He plays with a bluegrass band on a homemade violin. To illustrate Bernoulli’s principle, he has his students build and fly boomerangs. He likes amateur radio, woodworking, military history, and, of course, teaching.

Patrick A. Welsh, a physics teacher at D.W. Daniel High School in South Carolina, is the Aerospace Education Foundation’s 2005 national teacher of the year.

Welsh has taught physics in Central, S.C., for the past 23 years and in 2005 received the Christa McAuliffe Memorial Award as teacher of the year from AEF, an affiliate of the Air Force Association. Welsh was presented with the award during the AFA National Convention in Washington, D.C., last September.

The honor is given annually for excellence in furthering the concepts of aerospace technologies through successful, innovative classroom programs. That description is tailor-made for Welsh. His approach to teaching physics is based on demonstrating practical applications of natural laws. More often than not, he draws on aerospace for his examples.

“A big focus of my courses is teaching Newtonian mechanics,” Welsh said. “We look at the way things move and why they move the way they do. We study Newton’s three laws of motion, the universal law of gravitation, and those kinds of things.” Welsh said he hasn’t found any more exciting applications of the principles than spaceflight, the physics of orbital motion, microgravity, and flight in general.

Welsh came to teaching by a circuitous route. He was born in Walhalla, S.C., barely 20 miles from where he now lives. In high school, his favorite subjects were math and chemistry, and his favorite activity was playing the French horn and sousaphone in the school band.

After graduation, he attended college at Clemson University, S.C., where the draws were his passion for the football team and the fact that he could afford the tuition. He earned a bachelor of science degree and went on to the University of Georgia to earn his degree in veterinary science. At age 25, he returned to Walhalla and set up a veterinary practice but, after five years, sold the practice to his partner and returned to Clemson to earn a master’s degree in bioengineering.

The Turning Point

It was while he was in graduate school that he decided to go into teaching. He was hired by D.W. Daniel High School to teach biology and physics. In time, he began teaching physics alone.

Today, Welsh teaches three levels of physics, each a little more concentrated than the last. “Technical Preparation” is mainly for students who will go on to technical schools or into the military. “College Preparation” is for students likely to go to college but not necessarily into science programs. The “Advanced Placement” (AP) course is designed to offer exceptional students enough college-level physics so they may be exempted from taking the first semester course.

Which level a student takes is influenced largely by his or her math ability. Welsh has designed the Tech Prep course so that students with marginal mathematics skills can pass it. The College Prep class is aimed at reasonably fluent mathematicians. The AP course is calculus based and intended for sophisticated mathematicians.

The course outlines for the College Preparation and AP physics classes are similar. Both include units on such subjects as Newton’s laws, work and energy, and impulse and momentum. The Advanced Placement course, however, gets into areas such as rotation, conservation of energy, and harmonic motion. Students must be selected for the Advanced Placement course based on their math and science grades and teacher recommendations.

Despite the popular notion that today’s American students tend to avoid science, Welsh said that 155 of the 193 seniors at Daniel are taking physics. He also does not buy the argument that that American youngsters aren’t good at science. “I have found that the kids who struggle the most with physics are the ones who have problems with math,” he said. “The physics itself can be tough, but what causes problems for students usually is making little mistakes in algebra.”

One reason for the high level of interest in physics may have something to do with Welsh’s hands-on approach to the subject. He begins each school year with a unit on the physics of boomerangs. The class talks about the Bernoulli principle and predicts which way a boomerang should spin and why it should come back. Then they go out and throw boomerangs to test their performance. In the Tech Prep classes, the students often build their own boomerangs.

Welsh introduces other subjects in the same manner—by talking about the way things work and building on that approach one step at a time. By about Christmas, he said, the students have a pretty good sense of Newton’s laws of motion.

Learning Trajectories

Welsh’s interest in the history of World War II provides examples of physics principles. TV documentaries on bomber missions, for instance, lead to discussions of the forces acting on bombs as they follow a trajectory to the target.

Welsh also leans heavily on the space program for examples of Newton’s laws in action. For example, he illustrates Newton’s Second Law of Motion—dealing with acceleration—with rockets. “They are acceleration machines,” said Welsh. “Is there a better way to talk about how force is equal to mass times acceleration than rockets?”

Weightlessness provides an opportunity to illustrate Newton’s Third Law:For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. “We don’t even think of that when we’re here on the ground,” he noted, “but when you are in space and suddenly you apply a force to an object, man, you are moving in the reverse direction.” So, he said, if you turn a screwdriver in one direction in space, “now you’re turning in the other.”

Welsh’s own enthusiasm for the space program dates back to his childhood, when the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects were capturing the world’s imagination. He remembers his first grade class watching Lt. Cmdr. Alan B. Shepard Jr.’s May 1961 launch. Every time there was another launch, a teacher would bring a TV to school and every child would be in that teacher’s class watching it.

“You had to be excited about that,” he said. “I don’t believe there has ever been a more exciting time than those years. I can remember as a child when President Kennedy said we’ll go to the moon within the decade and I was sitting there thinking, ‘No, that’s not going to happen. We’re not going to get there.’?”

Welsh thought the pursuit of that goal was “too good. We see this in science-fiction movies. But then you live through that decade and you think, ‘It is going to happen.’ I don’t know what we have right now to replace that kind of excitement.”

Welsh credits a fellow faculty member with putting him on the path to win the McAuliffe award. “Our Air Force JROTC instructor, a guy named Al Whitley, came to me and said, ‘Pat, you need to go for this award.’?”

“I wasn’t that interested when Al first came to me,” Welsh said, but Whitley would not take ‘no’ for an answer. Retired Col. Alton C. Whitley is a Vietnam combat veteran who piloted the A-7, A-10, F-100, and F-117. In 1980, while working as a Fighter Weapons School instructor at Nellis AFB, Nev., he was picked to test the top-secret F-117 stealth fighter and became the first military pilot to fly the fighter. In 1990, he was named commander of the 37th (F-117) Tactical Fighter Wing just before it deployed to Saudi Arabia for the Persian Gulf War. (See “The Secret Doings at Tonopah,” January 1993, p. 72.)

After winning the award, Welsh said, he was reminded of the inspiration he received from some of his own teachers. Asked what he would like to do next, he said, “Well, the state of South Carolina probably would let me retire after 28 years, but my wife’s not going to let me retire [in five] years—we have two sons in college and my daughter is in the 10th grade.”

Hanging In

The main thing, Welsh said, is, “I still enjoy my job. I still look forward to going in to work every day. I grew up where both my mom and dad had taught school early on but then worked in textile mills in the town where I grew up. And you know what? I didn’t hear my daddy come home talking about how great it was working in the cotton mill.”

Welsh said he is “fortunate to have a job where I’m looking forward to it every morning when I get out of bed. That’s something that’s not owed to me at all. Hopefully, I can teach until I get tired of it or they get tired of me.”

Sometimes, Welsh’s involvement with students extends well beyond the classroom. A case in point was the Habitat for Humanity project.

The idea took root during an annual event at Clemson. Each year, the students did a “blitz build,” erecting a Habitat house in a single week. One year, Welsh asked the Clemson faculty advisor whether high school students could build a house. As it happened, Habitat officials had been thinking about expanding to the high school level and encouraged him to take on the effort.

Students raised most of the money for materials and did most of the work. With time, the whole school, including students, faculty, and administration got behind the effort, and, for one school year, they all dedicated themselves to the building. Every Saturday, a couple dozen students turned up at the site.

“I don’t regret it even for one minute,” Welsh said, but “any time you put a kid up on a roof, you are always concerned about safety. We were lucky and we didn’t have any major accidents all year long—construction sites can be pretty dangerous.”

Welsh keeps in touch with his students not only in class but on the Internet. He maintains a home page on the high school’s Web site. On it, he covers everything from his grading policies to outlines for his various courses and simple experiments students can do at home to demonstrate physics principles. Among the home demonstrations are one to test inertia, using Coke bottles and a dollar bill, and another illustrating the Bernoulli principle with Styrofoam cups.

Welsh’s advice on study time is direct and basic. A problem, he says, lies in the fact that some students believe that one hour is a great deal of study. In fact, four hours may be required to master the material.

He tells students to find a quiet place to study, not in front of the television or while listening to the radio, and to study when they are rested and alert.

Welsh believes the greatest amount of learning occurs in class and warns against studying other subjects in class. When taking notes, he says, students should write down what he says, not just what he writes on the overhead projection.

Stay Focused

He tries to make his demonstrations entertaining as well as instructive, but he warns youngsters not to get caught up in the excitement and miss the point of the experiments. They should keep their minds on what happened and why it happened and write down the physical principle that was illustrated.

He favors keeping notes—and recopying them—as a way of studying. Studying in small groups works well for some students, he says. If they can teach someone else a difficult concept, it really increases their own understanding.

Welsh said he is not sure what he will do when he retires. “I hope that maybe my wife and I can travel some. I try right now to play as much fiddle as I can in a bluegrass band,” he said.

Bruce D. Callander is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. He served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War and was editor of Air Force Times from 1972 to 1986. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Ground Observer Corps,” appeared in the February issue.