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“All I really need to know I learned at ETHS,” Amie Wilkinson, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Chicago and fellow of the American Mathematical Society, told a crowd of more than 100 Evanston Township High School alumni who attended the Chem/Phys Reunion, held at ETHS on Sept. 23. Students in Chem/Phys – the Chemistry/Physics sequence at ETHS – take both courses simultaneously at a faster pace than they would take either course separately.
Prof. Wilkinson (ETHS ’85) said her statement still holds true today, even after she earned a B.A. from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. Although she did not focus on chemistry or physics classes beyond those taught in the Chem/Phys program at ETHS, Prof. Wilkinson credits the program with having a tremendous impact on her success as a mathematician working in “ergodic theory and smooth dynamical systems.” For those not familiar with such concepts, Prof. Wilkinson provided a simple explanation: “My field of research involves a way of thinking, dynamical thinking, which just means in motion,” she said. Examples of a dynamical system are the mathematical models that describe planetary motion or the flow of water through a pipe.
One common thread among attendees who reflected on their experiences in Chem/Phys was that the program prepared them for success in a wide range of endeavors, including those unrelated to math and science. Registrants included Chem/Phys alums who graduated as recently as 2016, and as far back as 1958. When alumni registration for the reunion far exceeded expectations, morning activities including a welcome address by District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon, were moved to the South Study Café, formerly Bacon Cafeteria. Fourteen retired and current Chem/Phys teachers also attended the event.
Lunch in the Terrace Dining Room featured keynote speaker Prof. Wilkinson, who will be honored with the ETHS Distinguished Alumni Award on Dec. 4. The day-long program included a visit to the Chem/Phys classrooms and an ETHS campus toursthat featured the Planetarium, the Advanced Manufacturing Labs, Auto Tech Lab, Geometry in Construction classroom, Heritage Hall, the Student Hub, and the Library.
Nina Dudnik, Ph.D. (ETHS ’94), founder and CEO of Seeding Labs, travelled from Boston to attend the reunion. As she entered the newly renovated Planetarium, Dr. Dudnik reminisced about the time she spent in the Chem/Phys program. “Dr. Ngoi was a huge influence on the trajectory of my science career,” Dr. Dudnik said, referring to now-retired Chemistry teacher Mephie Ngoi, who attended the event.
When asked about the benefits of Chem/Phys, Dr. Dudnik said, “The multi-year experience is integral to the success of the program. It fosters an incredible sense of community among the students, and a relationship between teachers and their students. They know you and what you’re capable of.”
This was her first visit to ETHS since graduation. “What really hit home was the incredible wealth of resources that were made available to us at the high school. In retrospect, it’s clear to us that we also had incredibly dedicated teachers,” Dr. Dudnik said. She founded the non-profit Seeding Labs in 2003. The organization raises funds to equip scientists worldwide with the tools, training, and connections they need to be on the cutting edge of global discovery, according to their website.
Reunion attendees also had an opportunity to engage in conversation and discussion with fellow Chem/Phys alums at an afternoon session called Career Connections. The reunion continued into the evening at the Chem/Phys Social at 7 p.m. at Tommy Nevin’s Pub. A hand-out, “Chem/Phys Reunion Challenge!! What do we remember?” perhaps brought back memories of late nights doing homework. Number 17 was a typical question on the hand-out:
The equation of motion of a simple harmonic oscillator is d²x/dt² = -9x, where x is displacement and t is time. The period of oscillation is 6π b. 9/2π c. 3/2π d. 2π/3 e. 2π/9
The Chem/Phys Reunion, sponsored by the ETHS Alumni Association and the ETHS Educational Foundation, also raised close to $18,000 from reunion donors for building the new Chem/Phys Theory Center, a research lab that will provide opportunities for students to develop research methods and participate in projects for theoretical research. A donor has offered to match donations for this project dollar-for-dollar.