Conceptual Physics? Library Sciences? Mayfield freshmen get a head start on critical learning skills

“What are the underlying principles behind refrigeration?”  “Solar-powered houses: how do they work and how viable are they?”  “Why are tires made of rubber?”

These are some of the potential research topics freshmen face for their very first Conceptual Physics assignment—a daunting prospect for any ninth grader. But Mayfield students are not on their own.
Librarians Ann Pibel and Julie Daniels, along with Library Assistant Cheyenne Sons, act as expert guides to help navigate the online information maze that is both the boon and the bane of 21st-century learning. Where to start? The library team works behind the scenes to create extensive “LibGuides” for each subject (essentially online research maps) and then visit classrooms to walk students through their recommendations. Students encounter periodicals and databases they have never heard of—after all, for most, this is their first deep dive into this challenging subject—and get a one-on-one strategy session to learn the basics of conducting research and using citations. Soon Mayfield’s virtual and physical libraries become their first stop on every research journey. 

Wait a minute—freshman physics? Yes, mandatory freshman physics. The idea of delving into this hybrid math-science subject so early may surprise many, since physics was once the final—and also optional—course offered in high school science. Physics teacher Michael Dimen explains, “The way physics is traditionally taught is not made for everyone. Not even close.” And although physics was the ultimate science course offered in his own high school, Mr. Dimen applauds Mayfield’s move to make it a freshman course: “Putting physics first changes how you approach the scope and sequence of science.”

There are also some familiar stigmas about physics that Science Department Chair Tanya Melby has had to contend with: The discipline tends to be male-dominated. The assumption it’s too difficult for most students to take on. Melby engages with these ideas without flinching, saying that physics doesn’t have to be approached “as a huge, mathematical, Einsteinian computation…You can learn basic physics components without necessarily doing the computational work.” Moreover, Ms. Melby explains, “Physics is not just in the classroom, it is all around us. We can find it in sports, music, and even in our own body.” This type of accessibility is key for female students, inspiring both curiosity and confidence early on.

Ms. Melby also reflects on how the library and librarians play such a central role in her course-load, an interdisciplinary collaboration that she credits to Kate Morin’s initiative to develop common research skills across the subjects starting freshman year. Ms. Melby says she had never experienced this level of “cohesion between classroom and library” in her pre-Mayfield teaching life, and it’s something she sees as hugely beneficial for her students.

This collaborative library model is not reserved for science students—the same research resources are provided across all subjects. Director of Library Sciences Ms. Pibel is pleased to play such an active role in Mayfield students’ education. She describes herself and her similarly proactive colleagues as “teacher librarians,” and laughs that they can be “aggressively helpful” at times.

Having worked in libraries at both PCC and Caltech before coming to Mayfield, Ms. Pibel is ideally placed to engage with digital natives. Although the students she interacts with grew up with Google, they often come from “schools with small libraries or no libraries at all.” With access to such a well-equipped library with a staff that is so engaged, Mayfield students quickly come to understand the need for a different kind of engagement than one provided by a web browser.

And it is not only the students who benefit from the expertise of such librarians. Ms. Melby and Mr. Dimen both agree that this collaboration with the library empowers them in their own teaching. Although students fret over their term papers, Ms. Melby says, “it can be intimidating for teachers to assign a research project” too. The teachers are experts in their fields, invested in grading the content of students’ work and gauging how well they understood the material. But delving into the citations is a major operational lift that takes a lot of time and energy. And as technology changes, keeping up with all citation styles across all disciplines can be nearly a full-time job. This is why having experts in the field is invaluable. 

While teachers remain the arbiters of most student work, librarians are often included in the final stages, checking citation accuracy and deciding whether sources were reputable. Many teachers rely on this essential part of their collaboration and it is not unusual for the student’s final grade to reflect the significant engagement of the library staff.

The collaboration between the physics teachers and the librarians takes other forms too. Teachers submit their list of potential research subjects to the librarians, who flag instances when they don’t have age-appropriate materials, or make their own suggestions based on their in-depth knowledge of the library inventory.

Ms. Melby fondly remarks on the ways the science department and library have only “strengthened and improved” their connections over the last few years. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

When a Mayfield student graduates and moves on to university-level work, she does so with formidable skill sets, having honed both her intellectual prowess and her academic integrity throughout her high school years. And all of that groundwork begins her first day on campus.
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 21 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.