I grew up in Sebastopol, California, a town about one hour north of San Francisco, conveniently located near rocky ocean cliffs, rolling hills covered with oaks and vineyards, dense redwood forest, plenty of yellow jacket hives and poison oak, and vantages unpolluted by extraneous photons from which to observe the milky way. The community was very artistic, with a small town repertory theater, little galleries, public sculpture, and a community studio where we went to art camp every summer.
My mom, Chilean born and a romantic at heart, was a lab assistant for the astronomy department at a local community college, and would take my little brother and sister and I up to Lake Sonoma to lie in the back of the pick-up truck and watch the stars pass by as we and our planet rotated around its impossibly long and invisible axis. We took long-exposure photographs through the telescopes using the programmable tracking systems to avoid streaking, and ate cookies. My favorite memory of this was looking through the eye of a telescope to actually see the stratified banding patterns of Jupiter’s atmosphere!
My dad, a military brat and technology geek, was an engineer and loved to do projects with us. We started with Legos, but eventually moved on to other more physically dangerous projects. It didn’t matter if it was working cars, the plumbing, building furniture, restoring an old Sunn amplifier, or building skateboard ramps, my dad would always ask us “how do you think this works?” or “how should we build it?” If he climbed under the house, we climbed under the house. “Careful,” he would say, “black widow spiders live down here.” My curiosity for all things arachnological and entomological helped me go down there, but mostly the irrepressible urge to be like my dad ultimately led me to follow him into the dark cold depths. I think it was important for my siblings and I to look at all of the stuff in our lives (the house, the cars, the appliances, etc.) as things that people designed and built, things that can break and can be modified. They weren’t magic things, we owned them with our understanding.
As a secondary school student I liked math and science, and I loved my art and music classes. I loved to read science fiction novels and comic books about robots and aliens. I chose less traditional physical activities, including skateboarding, martial arts, and eventually collegiate and freestyle wrestling. I liked the freedom inherent in each of these sports, as well as the physics built in to each one. I didn’t realize it at the time, but skateboarding is the ultimate application of Newtonian determinism, where you set initial conditions for the rotation and trajectory of your body and your board and hope that you did it right! Karate and wrestling involve more moment to moment application of leverage, torque, and momentum transfer. By my senior year of high school, I understood these tactile experiences in the context of physics, and I was left with way too many questions to stop studying it. So, I made it my goal to continue learning about physics, and by the time I enrolled at Santa Rosa Junior College I knew that I would be majoring in physics.
After high school I realized that anyone can learn anything if they make goals and they approach new ideas and concepts several times over from multiple perspectives. I put this into practice by supplementing my coursework with writing, drawing, doing extra problems, talking to people about physics concepts, reading a ton, and most importantly teaching in a STEM tutoring center on campus. Teaching seemed to be hands-down the best way to understand the material, and beyond that it seemed like my attitude about learning was helping my students, because I could explain things in more than one way. This is why co-generative dialogs and co-teaching with my students currently seem like such viable methods of teaching and planning, and fostering a truly culturally relevant learning environment for students where they share authority over the domain of the classroom. I have been tinkering with this method in my teaching and have seen some positive response from my students; so it will be something that I continue to do.
I transferred to the University of California, Berkeley in 2005 where I double majored in Physics and Art; worked at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for the Accelerator and Fusion Research Division developing particle accelerator magnets; road my bike through the Berkeley hills; and played tons of Ultimate Frisbee. I also worked as a course assistant for a game design methods course where I helped undergraduate and graduate students create artistic games using a special i/o computing platform called an Arduino. After graduating I worked as a graphic artist for about a year, tore my ACL, got reconstructive surgery, and worked for Obama’s campaign for change in Florida during the 2008 presidential campaign.
When I got back from the campaign I took a job at the East Bay Academy for Young Scientists (EBAYS), an affiliate of the Lawrence Hall of Science museum in Berkeley. My co-teacher Sara and I taught 6th graders at Westlake Middle School several times a week. Where we did laboratory experiments and went on field trips to the local creek to analyze the water for pollutants.
It was fun teaching science in an after school program, but I wanted to do it full time and make sure that I would be good at it. I moved to New York City in spring 2009 and enrolled in Teachers College at Columbia University to study physics education and become certified to teach. I worked at a charter school full time as a 7th and 8th grade science teacher while going to grad school full time; an experience that I will never repeat, but an experience that has convinced me of my infinite energy for the task of teaching. There is something incredibly rewarding about amplifying my passion through other people, and enhancing and feeding off of their passions at the same time. Teaching is humbling, inspiring, and intricately challenging. It is exciting to be among such talented teachers, staff, administrators, and students at Columbia Secondary School. I am glad to be part of the team!
My ongoing goals for teaching are: (1) to refine approaches to Culturally Relevant Teaching (CRT) and reconcile them with successful strategies from social constructivist approaches; (2) to expand computer science, math, and science instruction practices and integrate them across a seven year engineering core curriculum, thus giving our students the mental faculty to solve any problem that they encounter; (3) to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers to push the boundaries of discovery and collective imagination (i.e. make Star Trek a reality); (4) teach every student to kick-flip…
I also have a website containing a lot of my artwork from recent years, and some of my science projects: http://www.natefinney.com