Petrick Spotlights Schalek’s Physics Skills at PaliHi

At Palisades High, David Schalek teaches his honors physics class about Huygens' Principle.
At Palisades High, David Schalek teaches his honors physics class about Huygens’ Principle.
Photo by Rich Schmitt, Staff Photographer

A fortunate thing happened to David Schalek as he pursued his goal to become an astrophysicist. ‘I was at the University of Arizona, with a double major in astronomy and physics,’ he said. ‘I was doing research in the lab and I was also a teaching assistant, and I discovered I liked teaching more than research.’ After graduating from Arizona, Schalek worked as an environmental chemist in private industry in order to earn money for graduate school, which only confirmed that he didn’t belong in a lab. ‘I didn’t like it, and I started looking for a graduate program in physics, where I could earn my teaching credential at the same time.’ UCLA gave the Chicago-area native a free ride, and while at graduate school he met professor Bill Layton, who also taught at Palisades Charter High School. Layton was ready to retire and looking for a replacement. ‘You want my job?’ Layton asked Schalek. After student teaching at PaliHi in the spring of 1996 and completing his master’s degree, Schalek was hired full-time that fall. Now teaching physics, honor physics, AP physics and physical geology, he was one of five local teachers to receive a 2008 Lori Petrick Excellence in Education Award on May 18. Sitting in Schalek’s honors physics classroom as he explained Huygens’ Principle–how light behaves in waves and how the formulas are derived to make calculations’a reporter could easily see why Schalek is such a successful teacher. His explanations of potentially confusing material were clear and methodical. More impressively, his students were treated more like colleagues than students. Several times, students had questions about the material Schalek was covering, and he answered them promptly and respectfully. Schalek uses different ways of illustrating techniques to make the class interesting. When students first entered the darkened classroom on the day I visited, a table lamp was hidden in a cardboard box, which was positioned so that with the use of a parabolic mirror, the lamp appeared to be in front of and on top of the box. A simple experiment to show refractive light used a pencil in a water glass that was passed around, allowing the students to see the principle being discussed. Yet another experiment involved a laser pointing at two tiny, closely spaced slits whose light was then cast onto a board at the front of the classroom. The permeating pattern of nodes and antinodes was clearly seen. After the students were able to see the tiny alternating dark and light patterns, Schalek explained, through formulas, the phenomena that students had observed. A fourth experiment required that students look through the slits on a four-by-four-inch card towards a light bulb in a darkened room. ‘Oh, amazing!’ one student remarked, and a second said simply, ‘Wow!’ Using the card like this allowed students to look at multiple interference patterns, which meant that they were able to see the different colors of light simply by looking at a regular light bulb. Schalek’s focus in all of his classes is ‘to develop the student’s analytical problem solving skills. A person succeeds in our society by being able to solve problems; therefore, my physics classes provide an opportunity to address these necessary skills.’ The most difficult problem he faces is dispelling a campus myth, spread by students who are not in his classes, that physics is hard. ‘Physics has an undeserved reputation of being difficult,’ he said. ‘I’m always fighting against that mentality of fear.’ Schalek obtained his national board certification in teaching in 2000 and, as part of his duties, now teaches courses in classroom management to other teachers. He and his wife, veterinarian Stephannie Tallent, live in Hermosa Beach where they have a dog and three cats. When Schalek’s not teaching or encouraging students to take the most rigorous classes they can, he surfs, scuba dives, runs triathlons and lifts weights.