Physics Teacher Earns Praise, Criticism for "Applied" Exams
A New York high school physics teacher was awarded the prestigious Golden Apple award on Thursday despite a hailstorm of complaints from current and former students accusing him of rampantly unfair and arbitrary classroom techniques.
"John Gaston's twenty years of dedicated service to his students have helped produce some of the finest minds of our time," said New York State Education Commissioner Richard Mills. "He's a credit to the school system and a reminder of how important innovative approaches can be in the education of our students."
"He's a damn menace who should be locked up!" countered a protester at the ceremony, who was escorted from the room by security.
At issue is Gaston's method of "applied" examinations, in which he tests his students' understanding of physical laws by inviting them to participate, or not, in a series of potentially dangerous experiments.
"I am simply interested in seeing how well my students have absorbed the concepts of the laws of thermodynamics, potential versus kinetic energy, and so forth," said Gaston at the press conference. "Regurgitating parts of a textbook on an exam is fine, but demonstrating applied knowledge is another matter entirely."
A typical Gaston exam question involves asking students to choose between catching a small metal box filled with 20 pounds of lead dropped from a height of 1 foot, or the same metal box stuffed with 20 pounds of feathers dropped from the roof of an 8-story building. Each year, about five students try to catch the feather-filled box and end up in the emergency room with concussions.
"I still think it was a trick," glowered Marvin Stoddmeyer, a student who chose the feathers and failed the final exam, breaking his collarbone in the process. "Gaston said something about momentum and kinetic versus potential energy or something during the year - yadda yadda yadda. But at no point did he specifically warn us not to try to catch a 20 pound object dropped from an 8-story building. That's deception, man."
In addition, each year Gaston offers his students the chance to skip the rest of the year and earn an A in the course if they can produce a perpetual motion machine by the last day of school.
"I always do that the day after we cover the first law of thermodynamics," said Gaston. "Inevitably, a third of my class takes me up on the offer. They then complain about failing, but frankly I think I'm doing them a favor and short-circuiting a long and painful process for them, because do you think they would pass if they stuck around?"
However, after accepting the award, Gaston did say he was willing to cut his students a deal and add 10 points to everyone's grade before applying a curve to the final grades.
"Now that's fair," said Brandon Marlowe, one of Gaston's students. "At least he's being honest with us."