Can a university change the world?

I'm Stamatis Vokos, SPU professor of physics. My team just received a $3.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
Yes, through people of hope.

Stamatis Vokos knows good teaching. His homeroom teacher in fifth grade was very strict but inspired him to ask questions about the wide world, such as: What is light? Why does a lamppost’s reflection on water appear to follow us as we walk?

Stamatis Vokos with students
Stamatis Vokos loves to get students excited about science.

“We are all born inquisitive scientists,” says Vokos, a recipient of the SPU President’s Award for Excellence. “The gift of science helps us make sense of the world and has been bestowed on every one of us.” As a Christian and a scientist, he believes that all people –– not just those who pursue careers in science –– deserve to learn science with great teachers.

It is that zest for learning that drives his work to uncover the mysteries of God, and helps fuel the SPU initiative he leads to prepare exemplary teachers of science. This year’s $3.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation will extend the pioneering research he and his team have launched into how physics is taught from grade school through graduate school.

“Our ultimate goal,” says Vokos, “is to transform the teaching of science –– and excite students’ attitudes toward science.”

Vokos discovered his own love of teaching in high school, where he became fascinated with his newly discovered ability to predict –– qualitatively and quantitatively –– the behavior of simple physical systems. Like Einstein, he found that he wanted to “think God’s thoughts,” and that he wanted to share this fascination with others.

“Science teaching is not about the transmission of a canon of scientific facts to students,” he stresses. “It is the honing of the gift of reason.”

Vokos believes that SPU offers students a unique blend of commitments: to rigorous science, to the value of research about teaching and learning, to the development of both scientific competence and personal character, and to bringing hope into the lives of all God’s children. This combination, he says, creates a context in which those learning to become teachers of science focus, not just on what they teach, but, even more importantly, on what their students learn.

The NSF grant, titled “Honing Diagnostic Practice: Toward a New Model of Teacher Professional Preparation and Development,” extends a previous NSF grant to Seattle Pacific. Like the first grant, the new award supports SPU’s research into the challenges teachers face in recognizing and engaging student ideas. Vokos, who helped author the winning NSF proposals, says, “We want to engage teachers’ and learners’ ideas in the gathering of valid scientific knowledge, out of which innovative but testable new methods for teaching science will emerge.”

The goal is for science teachers to strengthen their ability to identify fundamental pre-conceptions among their students and to respond by helping them modify their ideas and form new ones –– and in the process counter common misunderstandings about science.

Read a story on the National Science Foundation grant in Response magazine, Winter 2009.

Read Seattle Pacific University’s 2014: A Blueprint for Excellence and learn about our Signature Commitments.

Read other stories of hope: Jake DeShazer, Jessica Pixler.