“I love this place. I walk in here and giggle every morning.”

Berner with 19th-century hand-made optics

Lecture demonstration lab technician, Physics and Astronomy Department
Length of service:
5 years
Other stuff:
Past president (1998-99) of the local chapter of the American Association of Physics Teachers; teaches science in Veterans Upward Bound.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Bill Berner bubbles over with enthusiasm as he shows a visitor around his workplace, a cavernous warehouse full of scientific equipment. The wild-haired, large-eyed Berner resembles Albert Einstein and would be right at home on a Saturday morning kids’ science show. And the job he has at Penn — designing, setting up and maintaining the equipment for demonstrations in physics classes — fits this image perfectly.

Every December, he brings the physics department’s resources to high school students by doing a physics Christmas show for kids from around the region. On April 3, Penn gave him a Models of Excellence award for that project. He was one of 23 employees recognized for significant contributions to the University and its mission.

Q. What do you like best about your job?
Before I came to Penn, I spent 25 years teaching physics in high school and about five years teaching at Penn State Abington. After teaching in high school and teaching at a night school at a local college campus, this is like you died and went to heaven. The people and the resources that are available here — you’re playing at a whole new level. It’s incredible.

I mean, I can’t believe I get paid for this job. I play Mr. Wizard, you know, just fiddle with stuff [laughs]. I love this place. I walk in here and giggle every morning.

Q. What resources do you have here that you didn’t have in your previous workplaces?
Virtually anywhere else you teach physics, you’re the only person teaching physics. And there’s no interaction, there’s no feedback. Here, if you come up with a good idea [for a demonstration], there are four or five world-class scientists who come in and add to it. And it just snowballs, and you end up with some amazing results.

Between the antique hardware and the good budget, we have virtually anything that we could possibly need at our disposal. We have equipment that was made by Lord Kelvin’s company at the turn of the century, and it’s got his name on it. We’ve got hand-made optics that came from Paris in the 19th century with the optician’s name engraved on it.

I got here and I thought, I wish I had this kind of stuff to teach high school with. And that’s the origin of the Christmas show. I thought, we can invite area high schools, we can assume these guys are doing a good job of classroom presentations but that they are financially handicapped. So if we can put up some demonstrations that they can’t do, they can refer to them throughout the year and say, Remember what we saw at Penn. Then they’ve seen it happen, they haven’t just heard about it happening.

So we put together a two-hour Christmas show. The demand has become so great we have to run two shows a year. We had 400 students come this year; we were full by the second week in December.

Q. What are some of the things you show the high school students?
We’ve got [a] laser apparatus that is worth the value of the entire science department of some high schools. So we can have six lasers at once firing into an optical device, and you clap chalk dust and you’ve got this wonderful spider web of light rays in a dark room and they can see exactly how the focal point of a lens works.

We can measure the speed of light right in front of a classroom and have people actually see the amount of time it takes light to cross the room. It’s really expensive to get an oscilloscope that’s that fast, and even more expensive to get one that can project on a screen so the whole room can see it. This is something that’s well within the reach of the mind of a high school student, but not within the reach of the budget of a high school.

Q. What other teaching do you do?
Four years ago, the physics department decided to participate in the Penn Summer Science Academy. The department asked me to take responsibility for putting together a one-month resident program for advanced high school students in physics. So for the month of July, we have 30 of the top students from all over the world come in.

What I like doing most is teaching and doing physics. But a very close second is mountain climbing. Anything that goes up, I like to climb. I like the comradeship and the challenge and the fact that there is a very clear goal that you can know that you accomplished.

Q. What was your reaction to being named a Model of Excellence?
The nicest thing about receiving this award is to discover that the school appreciates what I’m doing. I kind of was afraid this was subversive activity. I didn’t know whether the school would be happy about bringing the outside world in to see all this. And it’s been very gratifying to find out how committed Penn is to the community.

[Another neat thing] is the number of department members, faculty members, who e-mailed me or met me in the hallway who congratulated me and said that it was well deserved. I’d be doing this whether somebody was telling me it’s the right thing or not, because I kind of think it’s the right thing. But it does make me feel like I belong here.


Originally published on April 5, 2001