At Wantagh High School, physics is hands-on

Samantha Gordon wins award for her unique approach to teaching


No matter what section of the course material they’re on, Wantagh High School physics students can always count on exciting, hands-on activities from Samantha Gordon.

Gordon’s dedication and classroom innovation have resulted in her selection for the New York State Master Teacher program. She is among 221 educators chosen for the program, in which they will share practices to help improve the quality of STEM education in their home districts.

Gordon teaches both AP and regular-level physics at Wantagh High, which is also her alma mater. She is a lifelong Wantagh resident, having attended Forest Lake Elementary School before going to Wantagh middle and high schools, graduating in 2008. Gordon then went to Adelphi University for both undergraduate and graduate degrees, earning a bachelor’s in science and a master’s in adolescent education.

It was at Wantagh High School where Gordon discovered her love of science under the tutelage of former teacher Toni Sachs.

“I remember vividly dissecting frogs in AP Bio,” Gordon said. “And earthworms and lots of labs in that class. That was definitely the class that made me want to get into science. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, but that class definitely made me want to be a science teacher.”

Gordon had also considered teaching English, but Sachs drew her into science. Then, Richard Colavita — who still teaches in Wantagh — encouraged her passion for physics.

“I remember Sam displaying an interest in physics from the first few days I knew her as a student,” Colavita said. “I was always impressed, but never surprised when she added insight to any discussion, or when she excelled on every test. As the year went on, she and I had discussions about the best way to introduce ideas or deliver lessons. Even in high school she couldn’t help but see the course through the eyes of an educator. Years later, I was thrilled to find out that we’d be working across the hall from each other.”

Gordon student-taught at a few other school districts, including Floral Park and Elmont, before receiving an offer from Wantagh fresh out of her master’s program in 2013. She has been there ever since.

Inspired by what she learned from both Sachs and Colavita, Gordon has been on a mission to make physics a fun course ever since.

“People hear the word physics and they get scared away,” Gordon said. “So I’m very passionate about making it as engaging and hands-on as possible.”

How does she do this? By creating what she calls “inquiry labs,” in which she sets up an experimental phenomenon and gives her students a guiding question. These inquiry labs push the students to come up with their own experiments related to the phenomenon using the scientific method.

And then there’s the more fun side of Gordon’s teaching style. Every year, around the holidays, the students design gingerbread houses built to withstand “Hurricane Gordon,” which is Gordon with a leaf blower.

“It’s all about taking their understanding of mechanics and structural integrity, and applying it to a real challenge,” Gordon said about the gingerbread activity.

As with all educators, Gordon’s engaging style of teaching was briefly stymied by the Covid-19 pandemic, but that only inspired her to come back stronger. The time spent remote teaching gave Gordon the time to reformulate her classroom model, and she hit the ground running when Covid receded.

Now, Gordon is one of the 221 educators selected for the New York State Master Teacher program, which brings together educators from across the state to share best practices and provide innovative STEM education for students. She will be part of a program sponsored by the State University of New York and hosted locally by Stony Brook University. Gordon will be in the program for four years.

“This is a substantial achievement, and it doesn’t surprise me because she has proven to be a leader in the form of innovation in the classroom,” Paul Guzzone, Wantagh High School’s principal, said. “I consider myself lucky to have her as part of my team. We should all consider ourselves lucky to have her educating our children.”

Fortunately for the students, it looks like Gordon is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

“The community is so supportive of the schools here and that the parents are really involved,” Gordon said. “I love that the kids are passionate about trying new things, and getting involved. I have a wonderful science department that I work with, and a supportive administration. I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.”