Katherine Perez, ’17, MS ’21, knew nothing of physics before her senior year at Wilbur Cross High School. But thanks to an amazing teacher, after discovering the science of matter, motion, and energy, Perez knew she had found her passion. Fast forward eight years: after earning her undergraduate degree in physics from Southern in 2017 and her MS in applied physics this May, Perez is now the teaching the subject matter she loves most; best of all, it is at her alma mater, Wilbur Cross.
“When I was a senior in high school, I wanted to become teacher, but when I took AP Physics, I knew I wanted to major in it,” Perez says. “I’ve always loved math and science. It’s a passion. Lots of people are afraid of it, but it’s a wonderful field to know.”
During her undergraduate program at Southern, Perez immersed herself in physics. She participated in an IAF (Industry of Academic) fellowship and was trained in Southern’s Center for Nanotechnology, using the transmission electron microscope. She became president of the Physics Club. She volunteered for Family Science Night, an outreach program that focuses on hands-on, inquiry-based learning for children grades 3-5 and their parents in designated New Haven schools. She also interned at Medtronic, an international medical device company with offices in New Haven.
After that, says Perez, she didn’t know where life would lead next.
“I felt I had two choices: continue to work for Medtronic or something else.”
That something else turned out to be the unexpected union of two forces. While pursuing her master’s degree in physics at Southern, Perez decided to approach the department chair at Wilbur Cross about teaching.
“I asked if he needed a teacher and he said yes, and I started with 2-3 physics labs,” Perez says. “I was so nervous. Halfway through the semester I started to get used to it. It was hands-on, and I really liked that, so I thought about the teaching route again. I felt like I was brought back to that again and again. I did the Physics 7-12 teaching certification, and while I did that I was continuing to teach and work for the STEM office.”
Perez also became the coordinator of the Family Science Night.
In May 2019 Perez completed her teaching certification and started working at Wilbur Cross High School as a physical chemistry, or PhyChem, teacher to English language learners.
Walking down the same halls as a teacher, and not a student, felt funny and “really awkward” at first, Perez says, but her experiences as a bilingual student navigating the New Haven school system immediately helped put her in her students’ shoes.
“My family is from Nicaragua,” she says. “They immigrated to New Haven in 1991 knowing very little English. I’m a first-generation immigrant. My first speaking language was Spanish. I went to New Haven schools, and I know how stressful the experience can be. There are a lot of immigrants. You can get lost. I can relate to students and those who are coming to this country for the first time.”
In 2020, the physics teacher at Wilbur Cross retired and…
“Now I’m the physics teacher!” Perez says. “No, it wasn’t the same teacher who retired [who taught me]. That would have been funny.”
Perez has set ambitious goals for herself as a teacher, including confronting the stigma that math and science are hard.
“I want to inspire young girls and those who are new to this country that they can become the future engineers, scientists, and teachers,” Perez says. “I want to use my past experiences to encourage young adults to push forward and to not be afraid to ask for help, most importantly to advocate for their own learning.”
Perez also is intent on making the subject accessible and enjoyable by incorporating the same hands-on techniques used at Family Science Nights and the physics labs at Southern.
“I love my position and mentoring students in science. In my teaching I don’t want kids memorizing equations and formulas. I want them to understand it. I’d love to encourage them to fall in love with STEM, like I did.”