Pritzker Molecular Engineering program helps local teachers introduce students to quantum science

Zach Sweet knew he wanted to be a teacher once he began giving swim lessons at age 16. In college, he combined that love for teaching young people with his passion for math and science.

A decade into his teaching career, Sweet, who lives in the South Shore neighborhood and teaches AP Statistics and Algebra 2 at Hyde Park Academy, decided to take a break from summer school and district-sponsored programs, hoping to find a way to bring new ideas into the classroom and expand opportunities for students.

“I wanted to get more involved in the community around my school and be able to bring more experiences to my students that weren’t necessarily in the classroom,” he said.

After searching for local programs, he enrolled in TeachQuantum, a multi-year program that brings science teachers into the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering laboratories focused on quantum research, connects them to fellow teachers, and prepares them to introduce their students to quantum concepts.

In TeachQuantum, Sweet was excited to have hours in the laboratory each Friday with just two other people, offering lots of time for questions and using the equipment.

One thing he’s particularly excited to bring back to his students is a new lesson plan on polarization of light including a hands-on activity using lightboards and cellophane tape to apply trigonometry and quadratic regression.

“It’s so fun. I love the change, and I know I’m going to go back really refreshed in the fall. I’m so excited to actually do the lesson with my students,” he said.

TeachQuantum, now in its third year, is a partnership between the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Teachers collaborate and create lesson plans with peers across the program. Sweet says he’s eager to hear how the new lessons his fellow teachers have developed go over with students and potentially use them in his classroom in the future, too.

Sweet said that being in a new space was a good refresh for his brain. It also reminded him what it’s like to enter a new challenge – and how that might feel for his students.

“Being in this situation puts me outside of my comfort zone. I’m learning things I never have before. It’s giving me that same feeling that students often feel,” he said. “It’s really refreshing and helps build empathy too.” He plans to continue in the program next year.

“It’s cool that the university is so invested in high schools directly in the community. My school is almost right next door to the University of Chicago. It’s cool to be able to bring something that they would learn at the university to the classroom.”

—Article originally appeared on the UChicago Civic Engagement website