Submitted by Glenn Gullickson on 03/22/2017
It’s not always all about science when Zachary Kovach teaches his physics and environmental sciences classes at La Joya Community High School in Avondale.
For example, Kovach recently appeared in class with his hair dyed pink, orange and yellow to celebrate the fact that his students had exceeded their goal and raised $661 for a leukemia charity.
“It showed the power of what a group can do together,” Kovach said. “Any teachable moment, I will take advantage of.”
Putting that philosophy into practice perhaps contributed to Kovach recently being named one of nine regional Teachers of the Year by the Physics Teachers Education Coalition, or PhysTEC, a national organization that promotes physics education.
Kovach was among those nominated for the award by more than 300 institutions dedicated to improving and promoting physics teacher education.
“I want to be the best teacher I can for my students,” he said. “All I want to do is positively affect the most kids I can.”
In the four years he’s been teaching at La Joya, Kovach said the school has gone from two physics classes to 14, which required hiring two more teachers.
It’s part of an overall expansion of science education at the school, Kovach said.
“We have more science than we can handle,” he said. “Kids understand now that science can be fun.”
Kovach, 35, said he was always attracted to physics for its insights on how the world works, but he came to teaching late.
Originally from Cleveland, he dropped out of Ohio University, then came to Arizona about 11 years ago to help a friend start a skateboard camp, which allowed him to work with children for the first time.
Other careers followed before he discovered his passion.
“Teaching, kids, science — I put those words together and it was a lightning bolt,” he said.
He returned to college at Arizona State University, and in 2013 he was the first graduate of the school’s PhysTEC program, which introduces science students to teaching in a field where there’s a shortage of teachers.
His ASU professors nominated him for the award.
Kovach’s students are juniors and seniors who are required to take three years of science in high school, but often take a fourth year even if they aren’t planning to attend college, he said.
“It’s fun and they want to learn more,” he said.
But Kovach said there’s more than science to the lessons, which include critical thinking, problem solving, group dynamics and public speaking.
“If I can help them in those areas, that’s what’s important,” he said.
Kovach said his students’ questions drive what happens in the classroom.
“I call it organized chaos,” he said. “I’m responding to what kids need and what they want. My students are the reason for everything that happens.”
Kovach also serves on an Arizona Department of Education committee that’s working to rewrite the state’s standards for science education.