December 16, 2019

Reflections on My Education

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Reflections on My Education
Dr. Robert F. Szalapski
The Harley School – Physics

§ Overview

I am the expert on my own history. Because I have a rather long and, I think, fairly interesting history upon which I have reflected at length, I could write a book. What I would like to do is to share a few of the most salient points that might help my students to understand me. At the same time perhaps it will stimulate the reflections of each student.

§ Early Influences

I am the youngest of six. At the time of my earliest memories there were no post-secondary degrees in my extended family, but my parents strongly believed in education. Disappointed with their own public-school educations they sent us to parochial schools. With my place in the birth order my family had already been paying private-school tuition for many years prior to the start of my memories. On my father’s income as a truck driver this was reflected in the financial sacrifices that were made with respect to home, automobile and possessions.

Despite the financial hardships of paying tuition for six children my mother started back to school when I started first grade. My eldest sibling had just completed high-school chemistry and algebra 2/trigonometry, so he would sometimes help my mother at the kitchen table. My mother earned a Masters of Nursing, my brother is an MD and an Orthopedic Surgeon, I am a PhD Physicist, we produced a Masters of Social Work and a Masters of Audiology, and there is a lot more education that didn’t yield actual degrees.

In the home we spoke routinely about priorities with education being at the top. We shared family meals where etymology was a frequent topic of discussion. As a family we were focused on education, and we reflected on that topic often. Perhaps that is what allowed us to stay committed when we were working so hard and making big sacrifices.

§ Education

I don’t have much to say about my education through grade five. By the sixth grade I was complaining about boredom in my classes, and the suggestion by my math teacher that I should do more practice problems of the same nature was not helpful. Since this teacher liked to scribe at the blackboard while we explained our solutions, I found my own form of math-based entertainment. I would do the mental math in my head and dictate with impeccable diction at a rate with which she could not cope, and then she would get all flustered. Probably there was a different solution that would have worked better for the both of us. For example, my English teacher excused me from activities where I was already proficient and instead challenged me with books that were selected to appeal to my clearly rebellious nature. I guess I could easily separate my teachers into two groups: those that challenged and stimulated me versus those who paid a price for boring me.

In 1980 the Cosmos series narrated by Carl Sagan was aired on PBS. This was inspirational to me. I would get together with a friend and discuss it every week.

My all-time favorite teacher taught me algebra 2/trigonometry, chemistry and biochemistry, and as a result I chose to major in chemistry in college. It turns out that I am more interested in physics, but I didn’t know it due to the abominable nature of my high-school physics experience. I became hooked on physics when I faced the greatest challenged of my academic life to date; I received a 30 on my first physics exam. (It turned out to be one of the highest scores.) Deriving a major portion of my self-esteem from my academic successes, I was far outside of my comfort zone. I chose to ignore the advice of others who told me how to play the GPA game, and instead I listened to the sound of my voice saying,
“Don’t panic. Relax and you will swim.” It was shortly after this that I really found my stride.

§ Post College

In college I had several professors that really inspired me and who served as mentors. When I got to graduate school there was no particular person who filled that role, and I tended to be less focused for a while. It took some time for me to realize that I am the most important person in my own education. I am still very grateful when I can learn from others, but increasingly I have created my own learning opportunities.

When I was still doing high-energy physics I had to teach myself about new topics so that I could do research in those areas, and I found it curious how one could move from the uninitiated to the master of a new area of study in a relatively short time. I then taught myself a few different computer languages, computer algorithms and a whole lot of computer science; I worked as a software engineer for about a decade having never taken any of the prerequisite course work. Along the way I dabbled in several other fields including electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, optical engineering, systems engineering, dynamics & controls engineering plus more. Perhaps the most unanticipated but highly valuable part of my education was that I moved to Japan as an Assistant Professor in the Monbusho (Ministry of Education of Japan) where I remained for four years; that is a lengthy chapter in its own right, but I would be different today without that experience.

All the while I was working in fields related to engineering I remained more interested in the academic world. I did a lot of adjunct teaching at various colleges, and then I decided to teach high school. I earned teacher certifications in four areas.

§ Summary

Education started as a major part of my life because of my family. With school I started to find my own path, and various teachers were very important to me. Eventually I learned how to be in charge of my own learning, but I still love to learn from others when possible. I have probably learned more since leaving school than I did when I was in school, and this has allowed my life to go in many unanticipated directions.


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