Student Essay Contest

The Special Relativity of a Physics Teacher: An Interview with Jennifer Tillenburg

2013 AWM Essay Contest: High School Level Honorable Mention

By: Alexandria Miskho, Kamiakin High School, Kennewick, WA

On first glance, it looks a tad disorganized. Handmade roller-coasters line the back wall. Papers are dispersed about the room. The board is a canvas of numbers and symbols. Shelves are stocked with crystal-ball-like apparatuses and pressure sensing devices. Seated around the room are students debating equations and questions and problems, while she smiles on.
Jennifer Tillenburg is a unique teacher. She bounces into her classroom every day, ready to take on the challenges of the course. She is the teacher that arrives 45 minutes early every morning and leaves 45 minutes late every afternoon, in the chance that even one student may solicit her help. Jennifer Tillenburg is the young physics teacher at Kamiakin High school, and an inspiration to her students.
As a child, Ms. Tillenburg had but one goal: to be a carpenter. She was raised in a blue-collar family, her mom being a carpenter herself. For years Jennifer wanted to work with her hands, to build bridges and buildings just like her mom. After flaming the fires of this dream for a short while, however, she realized something. To put it simply, she “sucked at it.” In fact, she did not seriously desire to learn any trade or enter into any vocational school. Coming from a working-class family, this idea was novel. However, her mother supported her entirely. She encouraged Jennifer to chase her dreams, to find her place in academia. Initially, Ms. Tillenburg was drawn to the idea of defending the law. As she realized this profession required an extensive knowledge-base in reading and writing, subjects that she didn’t particularly care for, she once again vacillated in what her future profession would be. And then, like a shining beacon on a dark stormy night, there was math.
Math was a subject which came easily to Ms. Tillenburg. It made sense. In high school, she was always the student paired with a struggling classmate. Through this tutoring of her fellow classmates, Ms. Tillenburg began to envision a teaching career. From within herself bloomed a motivation to study math and science, to learn the concepts entirely on her own, to share her devotion to math with others, to be practically the first in her family to attend a university.
Upon matriculating at Eastern Washington University, Jennifer enrolled in her first physics class. This subject, this applied mathematics, spoke to her. Previously, she had never taken (or even heard of) physics before. In these introductory courses, Ms. Tillenburg found her niche. However, as she began to take higher level classes, she was surprised at what she saw. In a classroom of ten physics students, there was often only one girl. Her.
Surrounded by a sea of males, professors and students alike, she was the aberration. And what an aberration she was. Ms. Tillenburg became the student her fellow classmates asked questions of; she was the one invited to a multitude of study groups so that she could explain the concepts. Her natural talent at physics surpassed any prejudices that were swirling around her. In fact, she became a physics tutor at college. When meeting the males she tutored, they would look at her surprised, communicating their doubts that “[she] know more than [they] did about physics?” At first, it was difficult to overcome the stereotype that men were more knowledgeable in math and applied mathematics. After her male counterparts were exposed to her desire to learn and her love of mathematics and physics, though, Miss Tillenburg effectively squashed that stereotype, time after time.
As a young, female applied mathematics teacher, Miss Tillenburg is easy to relate to. Spend one moment with her and it is apparent that her devotion to physics transcends all else. Her energy has no place to dissipate into except for the minds of her students. But even as she found herself in a leadership role, stereotypes continued to follow her. Parents, upon realizing that the AP physics teacher was in fact a younger woman, initially looked at her “weirdly.” Similar to Ms. Tillenburg’s own college days, in her first year of teaching there was one girl in AP physics. That year, when a fellow teacher asked Ms. Tillenburg which of her students would qualify as a tutor, one male student explained that “it has to be a guy because no guy wants a girl teaching him physics.” Sheepishly, he added “except you, Ms. Tillenburg.”
It seems as if moments such as these have only propelled Jennifer to advance women in the field of applied mathematics. For example, she purposefully pairs the differing genders in groups in order to encourage girls to engage in meaningful discussions with male classmates. She herself is a constant reminder that women can succeed tremendously in a mathematics field. From teaching mechanics to learning about special relativity, her favorite subject, to taking supplementary calculus courses on the side, she lives every day in a world of equations and formulas.
Leaving Jennifer Tillenburg’s room, a student comes to find that any sense of disorganization is really a vesicle for her work. Having taken her AP physics class myself, I can honestly say that she is the type of woman that doesn’t back down from stereotypes. “Don’t pay attention to them” she advises. Have confidence in your abilities—they are what will help you succeed. As a young woman planning to enter the mathematics and applied science field, I only have to look towards Jennifer Tillenburg to see my future. In her, I found a teacher and an adviser. But I, along with many other people, have found an example to follow as I enter college and my career.
About the Student:
Throughout my high school career I have been actively involved in multiple organizations. I am the student representative to the School Board for the Kennewick school district, president of Key Club, and vice president of National Honor Society. This is my third year in Link Crew Leadership, fourteenth year of playing the piano, and second year of volunteering with my local hospital’s Green Team. In school, math has been my favorite subject for the last twelve years. I am currently enrolled in AP Calculus BC as well as math competition. I love all math, from solving a difficult problem with a complex theorem to exercising my mental math skills with my friends. I hope to further immerse myself in math and science upon entering college.