By Eric Butterman
Roy Coleman (CSH MS ’74), a former chair and judge of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) student science fair, believes that science skills often begin from practical experience, rather than from computer simulations.
For decades, Coleman was involved with the CPS science fairs, judging his last science fair in 2021. He continues to be on the CPS science fair board of directors.
“I believe that many kids have lost the ability to build things on their own,” says Coleman, who credits his aptitude for physics partly to his childhood spent working on his grandfather’s dark blue ’51 Plymouth. “Many people who learned to use their hands like I did will agree that it can make you better in science.”
As a physics teacher at Morgan Park High School from 1965 to 2006, Coleman championed an experiential approach to learning. That hands-on approach led him to build bridges — literally — between students and science.
Coleman is the founder of the Chicago Regional Bridge Building Contest, which takes place annually at the Illinois Institute of Technology, as well as the international arm of the contest.
“Many people who learned to use their hands like I did will agree that it can make you better in science.”
The bridge-building competition gives students the chance to learn from their successes as well as their failures. “It gives students the opportunity to actually build something and test it,” he says.
Coleman — who taught Eric Landahl (CSH MS ’96), associate professor of physics at DePaul, and astronaut Mae Jemison, the ﬁrst Black woman astronaut — found his own helpful instruction at DePaul, where he received his master’s in physics in 1974.
“I remember good, inventive instructors with interactive labs and experiments to inspire,” says Coleman, who won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching presented by Ronald Reagan in 1988. “It made me feel right at home and that I was at the right place at DePaul.”
To ignite that spark in others, Coleman and his wife, Dianna Uchida, also a longtime science educator and science fair organizer, have established an endowed scholarship for physics majors in DePaul’s College of Science and Health. They also support the Fund for Physics, which aids hands-on learning experiences at DePaul.
Coleman has fond memories of setting students’ imaginations aglow as a teacher. “It was always about the students and that moment where you show them something surprising that gives them a jaw-dropping experience,” he says. “That’s when you have them hooked. That’s the fun.”