Mark Vondracek, Evanston Township High School, Evanston, Illinois

What are your interests and background as they relate to the work you're doing with us?
I am Mark Vondracek, and I teach physics at Evanston Township High School. My background is in physics, and I have a PhD from the University of Illinois in high energy particle physics. I love science, and I started teaching in order to share my interests with kids. I've worked with the Center for Talent Development (CTD) at Northwestern for 13 years, and I've know Kemi Jona for many years. When he began developing the iLabs concept and helped win an NSF grant to begin working on the project, he invited me to begin thinking about how to use iLabs in high schools, and now it is a pleasure to be helping expand the options for iLabs available to high school teachers.
What is your current institutional affiliation and job or studies?
I teach at Evanston Township High School, and I am beginning my 12th year teaching in the Chem-Phys Program. I teach AP Physics C and regular physics, and I am a research advisor for students who work on independent research projects. I also coach numerous academic teams and have students involved in a variety of state and national contests.
How do you feel about working with iLabs?
I have a real interest in iLabs because of we are only scratching the surface of what will eventually exist. As a teacher, this excites me.
What significant things in your life have inspired you to study math or science?
I've always been naturally curious, and knew I wanted to do something with science since I was in middle school. My parents encouraged me to pursue whatever interests I had, and I have an uncle who has taught science for 40 years. We used to go off on the side at family get-togethers and he would show me how to do calculations in relativity and other areas, and although the rest of our family teased us for being nerds, we had a blast figuring things out.
Any anecdotes or interesting stories to tell about your life related to math or how you got to this point in your career or your studies?
My sixth grade teacher knew I was bored with the standard math and science topics, so he went to the high school and got me a physics book to study from. I've been hooked on physics since then.
How do you feel about this opportunity [working as an iLabs Fellow, using iLabs in your classroom]?
This gives me a chance to expose students not only to cool science, but also help them understand the new skills sets they need to develop and understand for their future. Being able to access equipment remotely, gather information from anywhere in the world, use technology to communicate and analyze data, and present it and defend it to their peers are all skills that are developing and being used in many areas of study, not just science. As a fellow, I am also very happy to help develop curricula and test it with students so it may be shared with other colleagues around the world. Hopefully what we develop now can be used many times over to help give other teachers ideas of how they want to use this technology and science with their students.
What are your expectations or what do you hope to get out of this experience?
I think having the radioactivity experiment as the first available high school iLab is near perfect. It can be used by all the major disciplines, and it is easily accessible and relevant in everyday life, meaning students are more likely to be interested in the materials and activities. I enjoy anything that can get students hooked and interested in science.
How do you hope to be inspired as a result of this program?
It is inspiring that this is developing into a global effort. I anticipate that remote experimentation will only grow with time, and will continue to provide more options and opportunities to teachers and their students. A new realm of experiments will become available that were never possible in the past.
Where do you want to go with iLabs or what do you want to say about the future of iLabs?
I see iLabs ultimately as something that can help even out the playing field of education. As the number and types of experiments that are accessible online increases, all students at all types of schools will have access to the same opportunities and curricula. This includes wealthy suburban and private schools, rural schools and inner-city schools. Chances like this are few and far between when it comes to opportunity in education, and I am glad to be a part of the development of this project because it can benefit all students.