Macmillan Learning Author Spotlight: Gay Stewart

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“If I would have had a teacher like Dr. Stewart,” said Janie Pierce-Bratcher, Director of High School Marketing at Macmillan Learning, “I’d be building bridges right now.” Originally a physics major in undergrad, Janie found the subject quite challenging and changed her course of study. Today, when she listens to Dr. Stewart explain it, she understands physics much better than she had as a student. 

It’s partly because physics has a bad reputation. “People are afraid of it,” said Dr. Gay Stewart, Eberly Professor of STEM Education at West Virginia University and co-author of College Physics for the AP Physics 1 & 2 Courses. Physics’s perceived difficulty is also a reason that, among the other natural sciences, it has the fewest number of females in both physics courses at colleges and universities and physics-related careers. 

Dr. Gay Stewart, Eberly Professor of STEM Education, West Virginia UniversityDr. Gay Stewart, Eberly Professor of STEM Education, West Virginia UniversityDr. Stewart wants to change that. “When I was in graduate school,” she said, “one of my female peers told me that she was studying physics because people think it’s hard.” Dr. Stewart thinks that’s the wrong approach. “We need to be more welcoming in the physics community,” she said, “and one’s motivation to study physics shouldn’t be because it makes them feel smarter.” 

One way to change people’s perception of physics is to improve the learning materials used in physics courses, a task which Dr. Stewart has been uniquely positioned to accomplish. Before co-authoring the textbook for the AP course, Dr. Stewart spent six years on the AP Physics Test Development Committee, then served on and chaired the College Board’s Science Academic Advisory Committee; from there she became co-chair of the Redesign Commission, which established the new AP physics curriculum. 

Dr. Stewart’s empathy for her students is another strength that greatly improves the quality of her teaching and writing. She faced many significant challenges during her time as a student, in both undergraduate and graduate school, that have allowed her to better understand the personal struggles of her students. 

For Dr. Stewart, her journey to becoming a physics professor and textbook author began in high school. “My first physics class was at my tiny, rural high school,” she said. “The teacher only came to our school for half a day because he was shared with another school. He would trundle down from the mountains, and when his truck was full of snow we would have snowball fights. He made physics fun and interesting.” Dr. Stewart found the course challenging, but in a way that was engaging and motivating. 

“When I started my undergraduate career, I thought first of majoring in engineering,” Dr. Stewart said. She enrolled at the Naval Academy, but unfortunately sustained an injury that didn’t allow her to continue her studies there. “I sort of hobbled around for a bit–both figuratively and literally–trying to figure out what to do next,” she said. She then continued her studies at the University of Arizona as a business major before serendipitously running into a former mentor who encouraged her to switch majors. “The University of Arizona had tried to recruit me before,” she said, “and at the advice of my mentor–with the support of VA vocational rehab–I was able to complete a physics major during my last three semesters.” 

While condensing the entirety of a physics major into three semesters–including some summer coursework–seems challenging enough, Dr. Stewart also endured significant personal hardships before completing her degree. “I lost my husband,” she said, “and I had to finish my degree as a single parent with a very young child.” This experience, above others, created the greatest sense of empathy that Dr. Stewart has for her students and their unique backgrounds and situations. 

Dr. Stewart cares deeply for her students and is passionate about teaching. “When I started graduate school,” she said, “I was probably the only person who showed up to this highly regarded program with a desire to teach.” Compared to her peers, who were largely interested in research, Dr. Stewart always prioritized her teaching interests. 

“I remember my first experience teaching as a teaching assistant,” Dr. Stewart recalled. “I certainly looked as if I played the part; one of my students liked to point out my fuzzy hair and some of my other quirks.” Dr. Stewart remembered pushing this student a lot because he was a physics major. “Then, at a conference some twenty years later,” she said, “I was telling this story and there he was in the audience, smiling up at me. He became a high school physics teacher!” 

It’s important that Dr. Stewart feels she is making a difference in the work that she’s doing. She’s always had the opportunity to focus on research, but she consistently asks herself if that will make the world a better place for her own children, or the next generation more broadly. “So many people hear the word ‘physics’ and think ‘ew’,” she said, “but I understand that a key part of my job is to show people how physics plays such a large role in biology, evolution, and the environment. There’s physics in all of that.” 

During Dr. Stewart’s final year of graduate school, she discovered an undergraduate faculty advancement conference, which faculty attended in order to learn more about best practices in post-secondary pedagogy. “I contacted the event organizers  to plead my case to receive an invitation as a graduate student,” Dr. Stewart said. “I must have either annoyed them or provided enough of a heartfelt plea for them to extend the invitation to me.” 

Returning from that conference, Dr. Stewart changed the type of jobs she was applying for. “I found a job posting in which they were looking for someone to improve their physics courses,” she said. “I applied for the three-year position, but after my interview, I was offered a tenure-track position.” Dr. Stewart began teaching the large introductory courses in which not everyone knew if they would be physics majors. “I remember students coming up to me after class,” she said, “and telling me that it was the first time that they felt they belonged in a physics course.” Dr. Stewart’s work was making a difference–in the lives of each of her students. 

As the author of a textbook, Dr. Stewart makes a difference in the lives of even more students–and teachers. Though it was never her intention to write a textbook. “I swore I would never write one,” she said. “I had friends who had written textbooks, and I had learned quickly how large and time consuming of a project it is.” Nevertheless, through Dr. Stewart’s experience working on the AP Physics Test Development Committee, Redesign Commission, and Chairing the AP Physics 2 Test Development Committee she learned directly from high school teachers what was needed in an AP Physics textbook. 

“Everyone had access to my email address because of my affiliation with the American Association of Physics Teachers,” she said, “so my inbox was flooded with emails from teachers detailing their struggles with current AP Physics coursebooks.” Dr. Stewart described many of the problems having to deal with language that caused confusion for students. “Teachers would approach me and tell me that their textbook didn’t say something correctly. I told them to tell their students what it should say, and they would respond with something along the lines of: ‘Well, maybe you can do that because you’re a professor. But I’m a high school teacher, so if I try to tell my students that the textbook is wrong, they’re not necessarily always going to believe me.’” When a developmental editor from Macmillan Learning eventually reached out to her suggesting she could help fix some of the language in their textbook, she agreed–thinking it would be easier than writing a textbook from scratch. 

Dr. Stewart also used her experience at teacher workshops to fine tune her contributions to College Physics for the AP Physics 1 & 2 Courses. “I quickly realized that there were more layers to the problems high school teachers were having when teaching AP Physics to their students,” she said. “I am a member of several physics teacher listservs and routinely see the sorts of things my colleagues struggle with. At a workshop I was teaching about work and energy, a very experienced teacher I had a lot of respect for threw her hands up in the air and asked ‘Why didn’t anyone ever just say that?’” Dr. Stewart found that insightful, and used comments like that to improve the textbook for high school teachers with similar challenges. 

College instructors and high school teachers each have their own strengths. While instructors at colleges and universities have often had years to more deeply study their subject, high school teachers' expertise is pedagogy. “We wanted to make sure that we created a textbook that would allow teachers to invest their time and energy in their students–and not have them wondering what they need to do to improve their coursebook or materials,” Dr. Stewart said. In the second edition of College Physics for the AP Physics 1 & 2 Courses, Dr. Stewart and her co-authors paid special attention to the modified curriculum from the College Board, shifting their material around and making it more realistic for teachers to cover over the course of the two courses. “We wanted to make it as supportive as possible for the teachers,” she said, “because it is still a challenging course.” 

Dr. Stewart has dedicated her career to improving the teaching of physics and making the subject more welcoming to people of all backgrounds. “There’s always more work to be done,” she said, “but I think it’s a better space for women than it was a few decades ago.” Dr. Stewart also believes that her work to make physics more accessible to a wider audience has had an effect on her two daughters. “They support the work that I do,” she said, “and I know they are confident young women who don’t take lightly to people disregarding or excluding them because they are women. I'd be proud if I had something to do with that. 

When Dr. Stewart isn’t busy teaching or writing, she enjoys spending time with her two daughters. She is also excited to soon become a grandmother.