Physics Professor: Kebra Ward

Physics professor Kebra Ward is just wrapping up her first semester of teaching at MCLA, but she’s already grown popular with her students, largely thanks to her fun and approachable teaching style.

“I’m just making it fun for me,” she jokes, “And they reap the benefits of me trying to entertain myself.”

“Seriously though,” she continues” there’s been lots of research into how students best learn physics, and it’s not just a professor talking at the front of the room for an hour,” she says. “You have to get them actively involved, and that’s what I really try to do with my classes.”

Kebra certainly gets students involved, going so far as to use them as test subjects! During one general physics lab, senior student Kaz Lukacs got to take a ride on a device Ward brought in that spun him around on a pivot point, to demonstrate what they were learning about.

“She’s a lot of fun,” Lukacs says, “She also came to class dressed as Professor Trelawney [from Harry Potter] for Halloween, and puts encouraging little doodles on our exams!”

Kebra teaches a general physics class, which fills a Core Curriculum requirement, and introductory courses for physics majors on magnetism and electricity.

She’s always been interested in science, though she’s dabbled in many different fields of study before settling into her job as a physics teacher.

“When I was a kid I thought I’d be a marine biologist, because I love manatees,” she says, “And I was on the Science Olympiad team in middle school.” She ended up going to USC for an undergraduate degree in astronomy.

Kebra discovered her love of teaching while working with the Peace Corps in Mozambique. Upon returning, she decided she liked teaching college better than high school or middle school.

“One reason is that college students want to be here, so they’re slightly more engaged and proactive in their education. Plus, there’s a lot more freedom at the college level, to work with the students.” She adds that this is one of the things she likes about MCLA.

“This is a place that really cares about their students. At a lot of places the professors are there for accolades and research. At MCLA the focus is teaching, it’s on the students.”

“Plus,” she says, leaning forward conspiratorially, “have you seen this science center?”

Unsurprisingly, Kebra has a lot to say about STEM education, especially for girls.

“Where to begin?” she says, when asked about STEM education for girls. “It’s a hot topic right now. It’s a systemic and sort of tied in to basically the whole issue of women being accepted as, y’know, competent human beings who can do things. I’ve definitely come up against prejudices and things like that, and you just have to keep doing it. I’m not going to let a bunch of jerks keep me from what I want to be doing.”

“I don’t want to seem like a martyr, like ‘I’m a lady in science, respect me!’” she adds, putting on an overdramatic voice, “I just want to work hard and do my job well, and be recognized for that.”

“It’s hard [for young women interested in science], when from the beginning there are these roles you’re expected to conform to.”

“Toys are very important, but also very gendered” she says, and describes a present she got for her niece, who she describes as “very into science,” The toy was packaged as a perfume-making kit, with very “girly” packaging, but Kebra thought of it as a “scent chemistry kit,” and something that could be educational in a way that appeals to young girls.

Kebra stresses that it’s very important for students to learn in ways that are exciting and interesting for them.

“Whatever you’re interested in,” she says, “learn it however makes sense to you, learn whatever works for you, and find a way to do things in a way that’s meaningful to you! Show your love for your subject. And just do it!