Elwood Schapansky knows how to use his hands.
A retired physics professor, carpenter and former bush pilot in Alaska, Schapansky’s first thought when he needs something isn’t to buy it. It’s to make it.
So when the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic erupted a month ago, forcing a statewide order of shelter-in-place and the closure of public schools, Schapansky decided to put his hands to work.
The 82-year-old spends his days in his garage filming physics videos. There’s no lectern, textbooks or speeches. Schapansky’s stage is a workbench, and his audience is an iPhone 10, inside a homemade bracket, strapped to a ladder. Schapansky records his videos and sends them to Santa Barbara Charter School, where his son is a teacher. Teachers at Goleta Valley Junior High and in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Cuyama, where he lives, are also using his videos.
“I promote hands-on experiences,” said Schapansky, who earned a doctorate in physics from Colorado State University. “If you can work with your hands, you can always get a job. Kids for a while lost the ability to use their hands. Everything I do in physics instruction is hands-on. It is not an intellectual process.”
Schapansky has taken to YouTube to post his videos. In one video, he describes how he used to watch his father snap baling wire against battery generators to create a spark. That was before voltage meters, and it was his dad’s way to see if there was enough charge in the battery to start a car. Schapansky was 8 when he tried it himself, but instead of snapping the wires, he held them tight with both hands — and he was instantly burned, leaving a branded mark.
In the video demonstration, he uses pliers to hold the wire to create the charge.
In another video, he cooks a hot dog in seconds with alternating current — and then eats it on camera.
Those are the kinds of lessons he takes into the classroom.
He lives on a ranch in Cuyama, with limited telephone access. The nearest neighbor is a mile away, and he sometimes kills rattlesnakes in his remote location.
While it sounds like a tough life, it’s easy street for Schapansky, who grew up in Corn, Okla., and was raised by menonites. His father never told him that he did a good job in anything.
“Menonites never give you praise,” Schapansky said. “I grew up thinking I was worthless.”
He said he was valedictorian and captain of his high school football team, but “my parents always told me that I could do better.”
“It still lives with me,” he said. “He let me do anything I wanted, but he never told me I was any good.”
The family moved to Orosi, Calif., and Schapansky worked in the fields with Mexican farmworkers. He taught himself Spanish and developed a great appreciation of the Mexican culture.
“I know a lot of Americans don’t appreciate our farmworkers,” Schapansky said. “I do.”
A high school teacher persuaded him to go to college. A university professor helped him get his first job at Lockheed.
“The teachers helped me overcome what my menonite heritage did to me,” Schapansky said. “The teachers helped me learn I was OK. I want the students to know they are OK. My purpose is to make students feel good about themselves and make a difference in their lives.”
Schapansky said he “started out with nothing,” and he had to create opportunities for himself.
“My own children don’t know what it is to start with nothing and create something, and that is something that we are missing in society,” Schapansky said.
One of his goals, he said, is to help people think, and not just memorize.
“A true physicist and mathematician understands the numbers and how they relate to each other,” Schapansky said. “I can’t memorize anything. I have an intuitive sense of how people work. There is a huge difference in how people learn. There is a difference between understanding and memorizing.”
His son said he appreciates his father’s efforts.
“It is tremendously helpful that he is able to dive in,” said Steve Schapansky, Elwood’s son. “He really wants to empower students. He really believes if students can believe in themselves and pursue their own curiosity that he is helping them out. He gets excited about anyone who takes the information and uses it going forward.”
Steve Schapansky, who teaches a fifth-grade/sixth-grade combination class, said he has adjusted well to teaching online. His previous career was in Internet and digital marketing, so he is savvy with online technologies. He spends a lot of his time helping other teachers at Santa Barbara Charter School.
But, he said he misses the interaction of a classroom.
“It is like being a surgeon with gloves on,” Steve Schapansky said. “You don’t have a precise feeling for where the students are.”
With his digital skils, he created a website “to re-create the community that we lost in isolation.”
On the site, the students can privately share their work, comment on the work they see from others, and ask questions in a forum.
“It isn’t a replacement by any means, but it does help rebuild some of the community that has been lost,” Steve Schapansky said.
For the elder Schapansky, it’s just another chapter in his career of teaching. In 1981, he started the computer-assisted instruction program at Santa Barbara City College. For nearly 40 years, he also flew as a bush pilot in Alaska during the summers.
In 2016, he nearly died after he cleaned a rattlesnake that wandered onto his property in Cuyama. Although he killed other rattlesnakes that threatened his family in the past, this one looked different. It had two lumps in its stomach. He opened it up and saw two mice inside. He had a cut on his hand at the time, and some of the fluid from the snake entered the cut. Two months later, he fell “deathly ill” in Alaska, and tests revealed that he had salmonella in his blood.
It led to five major surgeries, 12 hospital stays and two stents. Only 15 percent of people who get salmonella in the blood survive. He beat it, and he jokes that he’s gained back 20 of the 40 pounds that he lost.
Today, teaching is “the only purpose I have.”
“I could die tomorrow and say I have had a full life,” he said. “This gives me a purpose, and as long as a I have a purpose, I am happy to be alive. Life has to have a purpose. You can’t just go through your life to have fun.”
Schapansky plans to visit Santa Barbara Charter School on Tuesday via Zoom and give a live lecture.
It will be just another day for the younger Schapansky.
“I would say everything in life has always been a lesson,” Steve Shapansky said of life with his father. “There isn’t one moment that goes by that you are not learning about something, which instilled in me general curiosity and enjoying the world around me.”