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Professor on a mission

The Baltimore Sun

Physics does not intimidate Russell Poch, who teaches the subject at Howard Community College. And he does not think it should intimidate students and teachers in Howard County's public schools, either.

"It's fun," said Poch. "It's our natural curiosity of seeing how the world works."

To demonstrate his point that light and heavy objects fall at the same speed, as long as they are about the same size, he asked a visitor to drop two objects. Most people think the heavier object will fall faster, he said, but physics is all about trying things out to see what happens.

For more than 20 years, Poch has helped the Howard County school system improve the teaching of physics through teacher workshops, curriculum reviews and science fairs.

This month, he was recognized for his efforts with a Friend of Education award from the Board of Education.

"We all felt this was a long time coming," said John Quinn, secondary science coordinator for the Howard County School System. "He's just had an incredible influence on the science program in Howard County."

Honored alongside Poch were Christine Pistorio, a volunteer with the Regional Program for Emotionally Disturbed students at Fulton Elementary; and Grace Community Church, which supports six elementary schools through programs ranging from clothing drives to landscaping help.

Though Poch is pleased with the recognition, he acknowledged that he has a selfish reason for promoting physics education. High school students who do well in the subject might wind up in his classes, he noted.

"I always saw the connection between the public schools and the community college," said Poch, sitting in his small, book-filled office in HCC's Science and Technology Building.

Though Poch is a college professor, he embraces science scholars at all levels. On prominent display in his office is a note from two fourth-graders written on green construction paper, thanking him for his help with a science project about projectiles.

Last summer, he taught the first part of a two-year program on physics for elementary and middle school teachers. Thirty-two teachers in Howard County participated in the weeklong course, including Kathy Hobart, a sixth-grade science teacher at Hammond Middle School.

Hobart said Poch introduced the teachers to technology such as sensors that connected computers to toy cars and could measure and graph force and velocity in real time. "It kind of makes that learning more immediate," she said.

"What this whole program is trying to do is make [physics] more applicable to real-life situations," she added. "It's like a new way of learning an old subject. It's been fun."

She will continue the program with another week of lessons this summer, but meanwhile she is applying the concepts to her lessons in astronomy, she said, by helping students understand the orbits and distances of planets.

Poch grew up outside Chicago and attended West Illinois University and Michigan State before moving to Columbia to start teaching at HCC in 1972, two years after the community college opened.

He has been working with the public schools almost from the time he arrived in Howard County, he said, doing everything from speaking at career days to organizing teacher workshops. And when his two daughters, now grown, attended Howard County schools, he volunteered at their schools, he said.

He was instrumental in creating the Math, Science and Technology Fair in Howard County, and still keeps track of which kids get to the state and national levels of science fair competitions. A few make it to the national competition nearly every year, he said.

For almost 20 years, Poch has been chairman of the Science Advisory Committee that helps guide the curriculum at the public schools.

Quinn, who joined the school system as a teacher in 1978, has known Poch for decades.

He remembers when computers started gaining popularity in the mid-1980s. Poch held a workshop for teachers at HCC, showing them something called probeware, which allowed scientific instruments such as thermometers to be attached to computers.

Instead of collecting data and entering it into computers, the process was automatic and immediate, Quinn said. "It just added so much power to teaching," he said.

"That was my first memory, that here was a guy who was a professor, devoting time to making sure the teachers were up on the latest technology," Quinn said.

Twenty years later, Poch is still doing just that.

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