Moving minds beyond stars

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Professor Lisa Will’s provocative teaching style gets her students thinking outside the box. Photo credit: Celia Jimenez

Celia Jimenez

Lisa Will identifies herself as a geek. Her favorites books are those related to science and astronomy. Her first encounters with these subjects on TV and film were through watching “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” with her older brother.

Will, has a Ph.D and is a professor of physics and astronomy at City College. She’s been teaching here since 2007 and is the resident astronomer at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.

Her interesting teaching style pushes students limits and forces them think outside the box.

“I was a nerd since a very young age. So I have to admit that my earlier influences were science fiction,” said Will about her childhood.

A California native, she grew up in the suburbs of Sacramento in a low-income family.

Her dad was a firefighter and her mom a housewife. She was the first in her immediate family to earn a college degree and the only one to have a Ph.D.

During her first quarter at UCLA she struggled with her Calculus class and recieved her first bad grade. She later learned that it was because her high school did not offer advanced mathematics courses.

“So being the best student there didn’t really prepare me for being an undergrad. Let’s just say I wasn’t worried about keeping a straight A average,” Will said of her college experience.

A counselor also advised her to look for another major but she knew what she wanted and refused to quit her goals. She later obtained a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics and a Ph.D in physics.

While attending UCLA, Will met her husband Greg van Eekhout, a science fiction and fantasy writer, in a club on campus.

Will’s initially shy personality immediately changes when she starts talking about the stars, gravity and planets.

Will has a particular way of teaching. Her classes resemble a narrative where she engages her students into science using data and visual imagery. Her teaching style was influenced by a Viking civilization and literature class she took at UCLA and by a biology teacher who always made time for his students.

“She always try to keep her students interested and involved in the class,” said one of her students on Will’s teaching style. “It just all amazes you when you see all the planets on the screen it just makes you wonder, oh this is what everything looks like.”

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In her physics classes, she tries to makes connections between physics and her biology and pre-med students, so they understand why they are taking those classes.

“In the sciences, especially in teaching Astro 101, that’s not geared toward science majors… I think it’s important for them that science is exciting and fun and human,” said Will.

With the planetarium, which was opened this spring, Will has even more resources under her belt to show her astronomy students. She can show how sun sets and rises in different part of the world in real time and how stars, planets and asteroids look and behave. Her interactive and visual classes help students to have a better understanding of the topics being covered.

She is also in charge of the planetarium at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and every month she presents “The Sky Tonight,” which shows the night sky and stars from different parts of the world.