Lurking in the far reaches of the science wing in a lair plastered with movie-posters is a movie buff, sci-fi writer, and sometime walking bacon, Mr. Riggs. Meet this Real Life Hero, who has devoted his career to delivering students from the evils of physics confusion and despair.
The first thing I see when I walk into Mr. Riggs’ room is Mr. Purcell. The two were joking about something just before I arrived, and as I walk in, tapping my fingers on my interview journal to alert them, they turn and greet me warmly.
“How’s it going?” I ask as Mr. Purcell approaches. He beams at me.
“It’s awesome!” he says, clapping me on the back jovially. “My first block students were a little squirrely, though.”
Setting my stuff down in a desk beside Mr. Riggs, I laugh and tell a brief story about my own first block class throwing a blueberry quiche around the room, falling into the kind of easy conversation that Mr. Riggs is excellent at making. He leans back in his chair comfortably as the interview begins.
Robert Riggs was born in Fairfax, Virginia in 1973 and went through high school right here at Central. It was in high school that he gained his appreciation for physics. “It just seemed more real than other sciences,” Riggs says as he reclines further back in his chair, gazing at the ceiling as he recalled his earlier years. “We were calculating speed and doing experiments. It was more hands on.”
After high school, Mr. Riggs went on to go to South Dakota State University. He delivered for Pizza Hut as he was preparing to become a substitute teacher, but then was hired right out of college at Central when another teacher quit. “Getting to teach at Central was an eventual goal of mine. I didn’t think it’d happen right away, but I was hired. I’ve never taught anywhere else,” says Riggs. “This is my 21st year.”
“The best thing is when you see students start to understand and enjoy what they’re doing.”
Teaching wasn’t Mr. Riggs’ original career of choice. “I actually wanted to be a veterinarian,” he says. “But there were too many cows and horses and not enough cats and dogs.”
“I liked working with kids, so I was deciding between being a doctor or a teacher. I don’t think I could be a doctor, because you mainly see the kids when they’re sick. It’d be hard to see that all the time, so I became a teacher,” Mr. Riggs explains. “The best thing is when you see students start to understand and enjoy what they’re doing.”
As his students can attest, Mr. Riggs enjoys doing labs and other hands on activities with his students. “Fifty percent of my labs are of my own creation,” he says. “I also change a lot of the labs that come from the curriculum.” Mr. Riggs also works on rearranging existing physics equations to make them more manageable for his students.
Mr. Riggs is so devoted to his students that he created his own now school-famous review game, inspired by the random point redistribution of Mario Party, called ‘Riggsey’s Review.’ Every group is assigned a game piece based on a color. They are asked a review question, and if they answer correctly, they get to roll the dice to move forward. Some stops on the board require the team to choose a card, and these cards (superhero themed) randomize your points in nefarious ways, such as the “Why so serious?” card, which takes away all of a team’s points. After every round, there’s an activity like ‘Garbage Ball’ (throwing balls of aluminum foil as close as possible to the trash can without actually going in), or intense games of Rock, Paper, Scissors that give the winning teams extra points or turns. “The first few years I did reviews Jeopardy style, but the kids who already knew everything got all the points. I wanted to make it more fair and base it on intelligence.”
I then ask Mr. Riggs about the movie posters he is so famous for, and a small smile lights up his face. “It was back when we got our own classrooms, after the expansion,” he explains, speaking of the addition of the science wing a few years back. “I wanted to fill up my room, so when my family and I went to the theaters next, I asked for some posters, and they gave me some because I was a regular. I’m really excited when I get the big canvas ones.” He points to one of the aforementioned canvas posters on his wall. It’s for Snow White and the Huntsman. “That movie is one of my wife’s favorites.”
Riggs is indefatigable in his explanations of concepts to students, always ensuring that everyone understands before he moves on.
Mr. Riggs also writes and has written a few books (and he’s always looking feedback, if anyone is looking for a sci-fi style read). “The first is about genetic mutation of animals and humans,” says Riggs. “I think it could be called realistic fiction. I like to write about stuff that could happen, or is on the verge of happening.” When asked about his origins as a writer, Mr. Riggs says, “ I was always told I was good at it. My senior year English teacher gave me a $500 scholarship, and I had a teacher in college enter one of my pieces in a contest.”
In his free time, Mr. Riggs likes to spend time with his wife of 11 years, Katherine, and his four children. The family goes to the theater together, watches shows like Flash (which, he admits, they are behind on), plays four-player Nintendo games, and visits comic conventions where Riggs sells comic books and LEGO minifigures.
“One thing I want people to know about me is that I’m a jokester. I would never intentionally hurt anyone’s feelings,” Riggs says. Jokingly, he adds, “Mystery Science Theater 3,000 is the best show ever.”
Riggs’ enthusiasm for his subject is shown clearly in the signs around his room, such as the ‘Stop… it’s Physics time!’ sign, and several posters that show the top ten scores his students have achieved in various physics experiments. In class, Riggs is indefatigable in his explanations of concepts to students, always ensuring that everyone understands before he moves on, and politely hearing out a student’s thoughts on a subject before commenting himself. His favorite part of teaching is helping students to understand, and he is well aware of the struggles that a student in the STEM fields may face. His advice to students, particularly to those STEM students, is to never give up. “Keep plugging away, because eventually you’ll get there. Work ‘til you get it,” he encourages.
Sage Preble is the Editor-in-Chief of the Pine Needle.
Feature photo by Charlie Perry