Exploring the universe in high school
Charles S. Owen taught at Thomas Jefferson University for 25 years and was also an influential high school science teacher.
May 9th, 2012
04:06 PM ET

Exploring the universe in high school

Courtesy CNNBy Elizabeth Landau, CNN

Editor’s Note: In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week this week, we’re asking our colleagues at CNN to share their stories of teachers who have inspired them.  Elizabeth Landau is a writer/producer for CNN.com.

Last week, on the occasion of my 10th high school reunion, I caught up with some of the teachers who motivated me to become a better thinker and more confident person over the years. But the science corridor of the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania held a special sadness for me as I thought about a teacher who is no longer there, and to whom I would love to be able to say: “Guess what? I write about science for CNN!”

When I was 16, I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed up for physics with Charles Owen – I’d merely chosen it over biology for my junior-year science elective because the idea of frog dissections grossed me out. But physics felt natural to me, and exciting. Dr. Owen explained, with demonstrations and thoughtful diagrams, how aspects of the universe such as momentum, acceleration and gravity could be described with formulas. I was simply amazed that, in the absence of air (in a vacuum), a feather and a bowling ball would fall at exactly the same speed, and that I could use an equation to prove it.

Just when I felt comfortable with the year’s material, Dr. Owen approached me to ask if I wanted to take Physics B Advanced Placement exam. This seemed outrageous at first – his course was not specifically geared toward any standardized test preparation. But he assured me that if I read a few additional textbook chapters on my own, and met with him a several times after school, I would be fine. It was the first time I’d undertaken a real “independent study.” I enjoyed having one-on-one discussions with Dr. Owen about everything from relativity to circuits.

I remained slightly doubtful until I took the exam, all alone in a college counseling office. The open-ended questions challenged me to make use of most of the material that Dr. Owen had taught me in new ways. He had given me the toolkit I needed to solve complex problems. I remember running down the corridor giddily to tell him I scored a 5 out of 5; in his usual calm way, he was pleased but not surprised.

Dr. Owen also taught my senior year Chemistry AP course. As with physics, he opened my eyes to all kinds of phenomena related to chemical interactions.

During one class that I will never forget, Dr. Owen asked us to open an assignment from a chapter we hadn’t read in months. My classmates and I exchanged confused glances. “Are you sure you mean that chapter?” we asked. He opened his mouth intending to say something like “Yes, let’s all turn to chapter nine,” but the words came out garbled. At first it seemed that he might be joking. But after our nervous laughter, he fell to the ground, eyes glazed over.

Dr. Owen came back to school not long after the apparent seizure, and seemed normal again; he even told us that he did mean chapter nine. His passion for the subject and sense of humor seemed intact. He mentioned that if you say the word “rabbit” as soon as you wake up on the first of the month, you’ll have good luck until the next month comes around – a practice that I clung to for years after.

But his collapse in class foreshadowed the unthinkable. In 2007, Dr. Owen passed away. It was only then I learned that he had additionally taught biochemistry at Thomas Jefferson University for 25 years, and co-authored several published scientific studies. But my classmates and I never felt like a hobby or a side project – Dr. Owen genuinely loved to teach high school, and some of my friends had even continued asking him questions when they were stumped in their college courses. At our reunion, we talked about how inspirational he was.

It would have been great to tell Dr. Owen that I ended up as a health reporter for CNN.com, and that I co-started the site’s science blog Light Years. If hadn’t had an engaging science teacher with a genuine passion for the material, who challenged me to go beyond the standard curriculum and follow my curiosities, perhaps I wouldn’t be writing about cutting-edge research in science today.

Do you know an inspirational teacher? Schools of Thought wants to hear your story.  Email us at SchoolsofThought@cnn.com or send us an iReport!  You may see your story on Schools of Thought!

Posted by
Filed under: High school • Science • Teacher Appreciation • Voices
soundoff (41 Responses)
  1. Dani

    Ryoirt –

    If you are going to criticize a comment, please check that your own conforms to the often incomprehensible rules of proper English. Notice, please, that English is capitalized.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  2. pgtierney

    Thank you, Elizabeth, for the fond remembrance of Dr. Owen. Due to his confidence in me, I began teaching at the Shipley School in 2001. A kind, gentle, knowledgeable man, he taught me most of what I came to know about teaching, and he loved the students!

    May 11, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  3. Zigon

    Elizabeth, This was a wonderful tribute to Dr Owen. I was a classmate of his son and lived near the Owen family, so I had the pleasure of knowing him outside of school as well during soccer carpools and the like. His passion for teaching others went well beyond the classroom; he truly cared, and he is certainly missed. We are certainly lucky to have known him.

    May 10, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
  4. A Proud Daughter

    Thank you for this tribute to a wonderful man. It truly means the world to hear how he has touched so many, and contiues to be remembered. Not only was he an incredible and inspiring teacher, but also a wonderful father. He is missed dearly every single day. Than you for this gift.

    May 10, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  5. Lauren

    I went to school with Elizabeth and also enjoyed the tutelage of Dr. Owen. He was a great teacher and human being and I was saddened by his loss when he passed away. Physics, not the easiest of subjects, was understandable under his guidance and even fun at times. I am sure that I am not the only member of the Shipley community that misses him and as a teacher myself I have a lot to live up to. Thank you, Dr. Owen, for inspiring us and thank you, Elizabeth, for writing such a nice homage to him.

    May 10, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  6. SB

    My 8th grade (circa 1986) computer teacher was wonderful. She recognized that a few of us in the class were already past the official curriculum and she helped us to go on and learn as much as we cared to. I think she'd be delighted to know that I made a career out of programming video games.

    May 10, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  7. Kb

    Ryoirt. Spelling is largely based off learning styles, not intelligence. Also, manners are something you do not have. So, in your words, "Ryoirt I wish that your parents would have been better at preparing you to be a polite adult. Learn the difference between being rude and having manners."

    May 10, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  8. Lisa Comstock Champoux

    My most inspiring teacher was Mr. Randy Daniels at Ankeny High School in Iowa. Math was my worst subject, but he encouraged me to keep at it. He was a great teacher then and still is today. Thanks Mr. Daniels!!!

    May 10, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  9. johnharry

    Lee Curry Key School Annapolis 7th grade English, Lacrosse Coach, mentor to everyone. 31 years later he still is larger then life.

    May 10, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  10. D. Shepperd

    Hey, you can ask Taylor Mali, who wrote the book What Teachers Make, a question and read about his latest book. What teachers make is an enormous difference in all our lives! http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com

    May 10, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  11. Margaret

    My most inspiring high school teacher was my chemistry teacher, Adelle Sherwin. She was genuinely interested in her students and made chemistry fun. Sadly, she passed away a week ago. Mrs. Sherwin, you made a difference in my life!

    May 10, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  12. Pete

    I feel a mixture of respect and pity for the people who, because they want to help kids, take the low pay and expose themselves to brat kids whose parents will sue at the drop of a hat.

    May 10, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  13. Jim in Georgia

    Mrs. Todd in high school speech had the most impact on my life. Learning to stand in front of a group of people and deliver clear concise thoughts helped me throughout my life. Thank you Mrs Todd.

    May 10, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  14. Karl

    Lovely remembrance of Charles S. Owen.

    May 10, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • elandau


      -Elizabeth Landau, CNN

      May 10, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  15. Sam

    I had a great History teacher that would always answer "Because people are idiots!" when asked why something in human history happened. Now that I'm older, I realize he was right on.

    May 10, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  16. Nikki

    Had Dr. Ables for college biology in the early 70's. Tough teacher, but he was so in love with his subject, it was infectious. Had a 9:00 A – 9:55 A class. You'd think you'd been there for about 10 minutes to discover it 9:50 A. I made a C in the class, but I still learned so much. I wish all my teachers had been like him.
    He was a big guy and a bit over-weight as well. I remember him doing an imitation of a Gooney Bird (albatross) trying to take off. Seeing him in a lab coat flapping his arms at the front of the class . . .

    The birds would even use the military base's runway to get up enough speed to take-off. The birds spend almost of all their time in the air and only land for mating/raising chicks. Landings and take-offs are hysterical.
    Thanks, Dr. Able.

    May 10, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  17. Peter E

    My best teachers were NOT the ones that tried to be liked by being easy, 'fun,' or 'cool.' My favorite teachers were the ones that demanded us to work hard and learn. I can respect teachers that believe students can learn, not the ones who waste our time with 'fun' stuff because they think we would never meet their expectations anyway.

    May 10, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • lynne

      as a teacher, I agree with you, and I expect great things from my students and make them work hard. However, just because something is fun does not necessarily mean that it is not valuable and cannot teach you the material. Additionally, an activity can be both fun AND hard.
      My history students just finished a WWII debate in which they had to analyze primary sources, draft arguments and build their respectful debating behaviors – and they had a blast the whole time.

      May 10, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  18. Steve Miller

    My favorite, like Bill, was my Algebra teacher, Ms. Gerhardt. I had always had a problem with all math subjects until her class. Her love of and enthusiatic presentation of the subject was infectious. I was a fairly average student until then. Once the "light" came on everything changed. I could "see" the relaionships in subjects other than math and really enjoyed my four year high school experience, as an "A" student. Thank you Ms. Gerhardt, wherever you are.

    May 10, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Ms. Gerhardt

      I'm right here Steve!

      May 10, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  19. Theodore J. Schott

    Mrs. Hebert. The 'ONLY' Human/Humane TEACHER, in '13' – miserable Catholic School years!

    May 10, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  20. Words1

    You can be the most brilliant teacher, but still be unable to impact or inspire students. It takes a balance of wanting to see them grow along with knowledge in your field.The Sciences and Math are the priorities these days and it's an important doorway to a variety of fields, but it could be an Art, History, English or even a Home Economics teacher that can leave a positive impact on a student for life. Also, a great teacher may need to be the most patient person, knowing a student may come only to appreciate him/her many years later.

    May 10, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  21. Dale N.M.

    There are very few teachers inspire anymore, majority of them are benefit hunting babysitters and they know the union will protect them.

    May 10, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Ollie

      seriously? Did you hear that on Fox News?

      May 10, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Chem Teacher - A

      Dale- I have a MS in Chemical Engineering, but teach because I want to inspire kids in science and because I love doing it. If I was "benefit hunting," I could have a much more lucrative career. My salary and benefits have nothing to do with my career choice, so please do not generalize. Not every person chooses their profession for the right reasons, but there a many competent teachers who work during the day to deliver, work at home to plan and grade, and work during their "summers off" so that they can be effective teachers in the classroom. My experience is that a majority of teachers are not babysitters and give a lot of themselves to their professions.

      May 10, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • LMC

      I'm sorry you feel that way. I work with a staff of fellow teachers and aides who care very much about our students. We are always working on the best way to serve and help our students achieve, as well as how to reach those students who just aren't achieving as they should. Sometimes we only have a student for a few weeks before they have to move on to a new place to live and a new school and during that time we try to reach out to that student and help them as much as possible during that short time. We work with what we have and try to make things better. Teachers give money to students who need lunch money and arrange warm coats in winter for those who don't have them. We had two students start at our school once who had been dropped off at a relative's house with only the clothes on their backs. Our staff provided school, play, and sleep wear for them in addition to toys and books. Believe me, if teachers were only teaching for the benefits and salaries, they wouldn't be teaching! In my state and district there have been no pay raises for years, teaching days have been cut, and benefits have been cut. We often spend our two months off in the summer taking classes to improve ourselves and learn better ways to teach. It's not an easy job, but we do it because we care about children and the future of our country and world.

      May 10, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • joyousnerdgirl

      Benefit-hunting babysitters? Are you for real? I am a high school Biology teacher. With my education, I could make three to four times my current salary in the private sector. Even if I just got paid babysitting rates, say $6 per child per hour, I would make three times my current salary, and that's just for the time I spend with students. That does not include the many hours a week I spend grading and preparing. Your statement does nothing but prove your own ignorance. I would love for you to come to my classroom and do my job for one week. I would be willing to bet you could not.

      May 10, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
      • lynne

        excuse me, many *states* have no union. Pardon the mis-type.

        May 10, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • lynne

      Many students have no unions – they are called "right to work" states. I live in one of those states and I teach. I actually know very few teachers like the ones you describe – though they do exist. Most of the teachers I know have this job because we love what we do and want to help students achieve their goals.
      Frankly, I find your assessment to be stereotypical, hateful and ignorant.

      May 10, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Karen Neff

      I've taught 26 years in 4 different states and never, not once, have I come across or been a, how did you say it? "A benefit hunting babysitter" relying on a union. Speak not about that which you do not know.

      May 10, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • GaryB

      If you want to discuss unearned benefits, crack open the annual report of most major U.S. corporations, and take a look at the compensation and severance packages made available to executive staff. You know, the guys that even get rewarded for screwing up. As a business owner myself, I've worked with a lot of CEOs, VPs, etc. and I can tell you with great certainty that most do not work all that hard, are often not all that smart and in many cases are not even integral to their company's success. Public school teachers, on the other hand have to put in at least five years of college (and in many case seven years or more) to work a position that pays the same or less than some government positions that only require a high school diploma. If they put that amount of education towards an MBA or Masters in Engineering, they could be making much more in the private sector. The majority of teachers teach because it is their calling. And I'm certainly not going to begrudge them a retirement package.

      May 10, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • yeti37

      "Babysitters"? Quite possibly, yes we are. But because parents refuse to parent their children or are so bad at parenting, it is up to the teachers to fill that void. We teach AND we babysit because most parents do not have a backbone. It is tough to be a teacher and even harder to be a parent. Most parents only have to deal with three or fewer kids. I have to deal with 100 every day.

      If you really want to honor teachers for National Teacher Week, skip the accolades, the luncheons, and small tributes, instead spend the time being better parents, tougher parents, inspiring parents, so that we can do our jobs better and teach more deeply.

      May 10, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  22. boboTheClown

    I remember only the hot and interesting one. Need both to keep the subject interesting.

    May 10, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  23. lauriemak1947

    In the movie THE HELP Viola Davis' character teaches the little girl she cares for "I am kind, I am smart, I am important." It wasn't until I was in the 4th grade that a very special nun taught me the same thing. Not with words, but with her actions. I was always very poor at math, but under her kind and loving teaching II blossomed and my final grade was an A+. She knew that good self esteem is the foundation for learning. No one has ever made me feel more special than she did. I have a 3 1/2 yr old granddaughter and whenever she is with me we recite "I am kind, I am smart, I am important" and we add "I am beautiful." We love to cook, read, play and so much more and I cherish every moment I am with her. I oray she has many wonderful teachers in her life and that she will always be aware of her own value and pass that on to others.

    May 10, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  24. Bill

    My Algebra II teacher, Regina Wenzel in Toledo, OH was my favorite teacher. She absolutely LOVED the subject and it was not only obvious, it was infectious. I never really grasped the material and I failed the mid-term exam (1st and only test on which I ever received less than a C) but boy I loved that class and that teacher! If you can remember your only F with a sense of nostalgia, that's a tribute to an excellent teacher!! 🙂

    May 10, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Physics Teacher - Kevin

      If you received an F in the class, either you failed her or she failed you. If school was all about fun and not the content learned, then every school would be trying to hire every comedian that has a funny joke or two.

      May 10, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  25. GenericMan

    I completely fell through the crack in high school. There was only one teacher I can even remember because he just gave the most interesting stories related to world history. I loved that class and I always said History was my favorite subject. I later learned it wasn't that subject, it was the professor. I wish I had more motivated professors when I was in high school to inspire me academically. Being a great teacher takes a lot of dedication it seems.

    May 9, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • Physics Teacher - Kevin

      One big difference between a great teacher and one that is not is that a great teacher doesn't need to ask if he is appreciated, he knows it because his students show him everyday. 🙂

      May 10, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Steve Paradiso

      GenericMan, I too had an absolutely wonderful history teacher in the 11th grade in Magnolia AR; Mr John Bell. I learned more from Mr Bell about the history of different religions, particularly the Catholics, then I ever learned in CCD. He was an amazing teacher that held your attention for the full hour of class.

      May 10, 2012 at 11:13 am |
      • Ryoirt Nugent

        Steve I wish that your english teacher was better..... learn the difference between then and than --they are not the same.

        May 10, 2012 at 11:55 am |