‘Science is hard’

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Woodlawn High School teacher Steve Griffin sits in his office in front of his degrees, certifications and a photo of Albert Einstein at his home in Baton Rouge. Griffin is set to begin a one-year Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship in Washington, D.C. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Woodlawn High School teacher Steve Griffin sits in his office in front of his degrees, certifications and a photo of Albert Einstein at his home in Baton Rouge. Griffin is set to begin a one-year Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship in Washington, D.C.

Woodlawn teacher Steve Griffin’s selection for NSF fellowship program proof that hard work does pay off

“Let me tell you something: I got a ‘D’ in physics in high school. I am not a science and math person. ... Why did I take those classes? Because I knew I could find a job.” Steve Griffin, Woodlawn High science teacher

The high school Steve Griffin attended in Montana didn’t have a “Most Likely to Become a Science Teacher” award. It’s just as well.

“My high school physics teacher … told me never to take anything involving engineering or science,” Griffin said.

“The department chair for mathematics … told me not to take math classes. I was not smart enough to take math.”

Although it took him a while to settle on a career path, it included everything Griffin was told not to do. It’s worked out pretty well, too.

This school year, Griffin will take a break from teaching physics and chemistry at Woodlawn High School to participate in the 2013-14 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program sponsored by the National Science Foundation. He is one of 27 chosen.

Griffin will spend the year in Washington, D.C., with the NSF’s division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships, which supports small business research proposals.

“The National Science Foundation is the largest funding entity in the United States — maybe for the world — for research,” he said. “They’re the ones that funded LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in Livingston). That first billion-dollar grant came from NSF. That’s why I’m so excited working for them.”

After earning a college degree in chemistry, Griffin, 57, began working for Coca-Cola in Michigan, but decided he wanted to teach, got a degree in mathematics and began his teaching career in Hawaii.

While participating in an NSF program that introduced an interactive math program to schools, he met and married a Louisiana native, moving to Donaldsonville to teach in 1995.

They divorced, and Griffin stayed in the area, teaching at Broadmoor, Walker and Woodlawn High schools, and earning a master’s degree in environmental chemistry and a doctorate in science and mathematics from Southern University, as well as a certification in gifted special education.

Not bad for someone judged to be not smart enough for such things. Success in these fields, he said, is more about determination than sheer intelligence.

“Let me tell you something: I got a ‘D’ in physics in high school,” he said. “I am not a science and math person. A math person told me not to take math classes. A science person told me not to take science classes. Why did I take those classes? Because I knew I could find a job. That’s why.

“And I found out about 90 percent of the people in math and science areas are not math and science people. They’re just like me. They had to study hard. They had to stay up all night long trying to figure out how to do things. ... That’s life.

“Science is hard. Math is hard. That’s why people don’t major in those subject areas, because it’s hard. Well, what’s wrong with it being hard?”

After his career reboot, Griffin discovered the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) concept. He met a former principal at Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax, Va., which has an entire STEM curriculum. Griffin thinks it would be a natural for this area’s industrial corridor.

Griffin started the robotics program at Woodlawn, and would love to see a high school have its own STEM emphasis.

Griffin said he can get students and teachers excited about science and math, but not administrators. “They just say, ‘Well, I’m just not a science or math (person).’”

Griffin hopes his year of observing the IIP and interacting with other STEM teachers who received Einstein fellowship will spark ideas.

“I’d love to come back and share this with the people of Louisiana,” he said.