The TCC physics professor, who is no relation to the New York Mets third baseman, will do just about anything to explain the principles of physics and the wonder of astronomy. He’s walked over broken glass and hopped up and down on a pogo stick. He’s used ice to make a moustache. Infrared cameras, slingshots and hovercrafts are all tools of his classroom, which often extends beyond the walls of the Virginia Beach Campus. A recent extra-credit observation for his astronomy students took place at 4 a.m. A program in conjunction with the Mars landing started at 11 p.m. at the Virginia Air and Space Center.
“The fact that they pay me is really a bonus; I get to play with all these toys,” Wright says. “I like trying to get students excited about science. That’s why I do a lot of the crazy things I do. I try to keep my energy level up while teaching. I make it a discussion instead of just talking at them.”
Physics is off-putting to some. Wright makes it less so. His introductory class typically attracts students from Old Dominion University who have heard about his reputation for making the most daunting material understandable. His philosophy dates back to his own high school physics class when the textbook was written by an author named Dull and his teacher, though knowledgeable, was equally droll.
“I enjoyed the class but thought there must be some way to make the material interesting,” Wright says.
During his sophomore year at Brigham Young University, Wright opted to pursue a teaching career rather than a research one, preferring working with people to things. While pursuing his master’s at BYU, he received a job offer from TCC. The year was 1974, and at that time, previous physics classes were taught by engineers.
“When I came here for an interview, I took a hard hat tour of the Blackwater building,” says Wright, who today heads the physics and astronomy departments, which have expanded to include five full-time faculty.
Teaching remains his passion. He is a regular at Busch Gardens for his “Physics in Motion” shows, which are highly interactive, treating the theme park as a giant physics lab. Every December he holds similar shows at Busch Gardens in Tampa. He regularly visits elementary schools, trying to get kids revved up about science, one reason he is happy elementary education majors at TCC take physics as a requirement.
“They’re the ones introducing kids to the subject first,” says Wright, who earned his doctorate from Virginia Tech in 1984. “So if they’re excited, they can share that with the kids they teach.”
Wright enjoys sharing TCC’s planetarium with the community, too. The monthly shows often sell out, and Wright often surprises the audience with laser shows from the Beatles, U2, Madonna and others.
Wright and wife Donna have four children and five grandchildren, ages 6 months to 5 years. He enjoys working with the Boy Scouts and being active at church, but his main hobbies are physics and astronomy.
“I love trying to get everybody to understand science,” he says. “A lot of students end up coming up to me and saying, ‘I really dreaded taking this class, but I ended up enjoying it.’ That gives me great satisfaction. I love what I do.”