H-F science teacher nominated for national honor

In Stephen Banasiak’s classroom, the approach is learning by experimentation.
Stephen Banasiak, a science teacher at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, has been nominated for a National Science Foundation award. (Marilyn Thomas/H-F Chronicle)
  H-F High School science teacher
  Stephen Banasiak has been
  nominated for a National
  Science Foundation award.
 
 (Marilyn Thomas/H-F Chronicle)
 

Through his physics classes or the forensic science class, the teacher at Homewood-Flossmoor High School is intent on giving students an understanding of scientific principles primarily through a hands-on approach.

 
Banasiak is being recognized as one of the outstanding science teachers in Illinois, nominated for the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching of Science and Mathematics.  
 
Over his nearly 15 years in an H-F classroom, Banasiak said he knows some students “come into my class saying they hate science. If they leave my room no longer with that attitude, I feel I’ve won them over. 
 
“If I can get students to no longer fear or hate science, if I get students that are engaged enough that they think about this as a career, if they learn just to apply rational thinking to test claims and verify that it’s true, I’ve taught a good lesson,” he explained.
 
He and a former H-F teacher Jaime Pape created the forensic science class in 2007 at a time when few high schools considered forensics for the curriculum. Those that did used forensics as an introductory class. By contrast, H-F uses forensic science as a capstone science. 
 
Banasiak and Pape couldn’t find materials that applied, so they wrote the curriculum themselves.
 
“We would see how other places had it structured, but then we’d go deeper because we wanted to demonstrate this is the functional use of biology, chemistry and physics in different careers.” 
 
If you’re thinking police investigations, you’d be right. Banasiak creates experiments that replicate a crime scene so students can learn how to handle and evaluate evidence.
 
But the year-long forensics class covers much more. 
 
“The underlying structure of the class is to get them exposure to live experiences as well as career evaluation” with a focus on lab practicums, he said.
 
Banasiak is teaching several sections of physics. All H-F students are required to take physics, the culmination of the biology-chemistry-physics sequence. Physics students also must pass geometry in the math sequence.
 
“We’ve been very fortunate to design our physics classes at different mathematical levels and students can move between the levels,” Banasiak said. “This way the students are taught where they’re not stressed out, feeling underwater. That’s one of the things that’s an asset here because you’ll find students get frustrated and shut down if they feel the class is way beyond them or way below them. We are lucky enough to have the flexibility … and also be more zoned in to them,” he explained.
 
In physics, the first semester is studying motion and second semester is studying interactions that go into electricity, waves, light and how physics ties into outer space.
 
Banasiak’s classes are “lots of hands-on labs where they can easily see what’s happening and control the variables. They smash two carts together and see how very easy it is to manipulate the variable and see the results. For a lot of those students, that’s something that they can start grasping onto because now it’s not just numbers on a worksheet. They can change (the experiment) to see what happens and then we put numbers on the worksheet and they can see the algebraic relationship of it between those areas.”
 
After earning his biology degree from St. Xavier University, Banasiak was a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois and a substitute teacher. He came to H-F in January 2004 on a half-year contract and got hired full-time for the following year. His original intention was to teach a few years and save money to return to school, but he found he really enjoyed working with high school students. 
 
He did go on to earn a master’s degree and has taken additional science courses. 
 
“I try to work as hard as my kids do on their education, so if someone wants to come in for extra help I’ll be there,” he said, making himself available mornings generally four of the five days in a week, and is in his classroom after school every day but Wednesday, when he is coaching the H-F Scholastic Bowl team.
 
“If they’re sick and they want to do a makeup, if they want to go over something or some studying for the next thing that’s coming up, I just try to make myself available for them,” Banasiak said.

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