‘Every kid can learn’ philosophy helps physics teacher earn recognition

John Olson, Free State High School physics teacher, center, works Thursday with Free State sophomore Eric Gruber, left, and senior Alex Chamberlain. Olson will receive a Wolfe Teaching Excellence Award from Kansas University.

Teaching physics to teenagers might seem about as difficult as trying to understand Einstein’s theory of relativity.

But not to John Olson.

“It’s actually one of the easier subjects to teach,” says Olson, who has been explaining the concepts of matter, energy, space and time to Free State High School students for a decade.

“I’ve found it pretty easy to find connections with the kids on what they have to know and why we have to know this stuff,” Olson said.

Olson’s teaching style and philosophy have brought him a Kansas University Wolfe Teaching Excellence Award.

During KU’s graduation weekend, May 19-20, Olson will receive a $3,000 cash award, and Free State will get a $1,000 award in his name. Teachers are nominated by KU seniors and go through a tiered selection process.

The Burwell, Neb., native received a bachelor’s degree in physical science education from the University of Nebraska-Kearney, a master’s degree in physical science education from Fort Hays State University and a doctorate in science education from Kansas University.

Olson has been a teacher at Free State since the school opened in 1997-1998. Before that, he taught seven years at Garden City High School.

“He’s the kind of a teacher who has an abiding interest in things and how they work,” said Joe Snider, FSHS principal.

“He conveys that to kids in a very special way by his enthusiasm and good teaching,” Snider said.

Olson said physics isn’t above his students’ level of comprehension.

“Basically, my philosophy is that every kid can learn. But there’s different degrees of what we have to do to bring that out of them,” Olson said.

He does that by trying to make lesson plans that interest all students. And he likes to have contests.

“For example, today, the kids are having a contest of who can make the most precise pendulum,” he said during an interview last week. “They’re given a limited amount of time and they have to figure out, without using a timing device, at what rate would it go back and forth. Then we test that against an actual time.”

Olson said he became a teacher because he was looking for something outside of a typical office job.

“The thing that always spooked me about being an engineer was that I would be in my own little cubicle or closet doing calculations all day, without a lot of contact with people. And that kind of turned me off,” he said.

Interacting with students is his favorite part of the job.

“I have a lot of fun with what I do,” he said. “Even though I’m teaching the same courses year after year, it’s a brand new group of kids and a brand new group of personalities every single day. So there’s always something fresh.”