Saturday, February 9, 2008

Why I Enjoy Teaching Physics

This article is motivated by Dr. Crazy's follow-up article where she explains that she enjoys teaching literature for reasons that are a bit different than the reason she thinks it is important to teach it.

Although my enjoyment when teaching was clearly part of my explanation for why I teach, there are some things that deserve separate mention here.

Yes, I enjoy helping them change their lives. I wasn't really aware of what a big deal that could be when I was teaching as an undergrad or in grad school, even when I knew someone was hoping to be an engineer, or go from being a nurse to a physician. I think I took it all too much for granted back then. The vast majority of the kids I started college with did not drop out and seemed to find their way to a goal even if it was not the one they started with. (I doubt if one of them planned to be a Provost!) I now know that is far from the norm.

I now know the difference between a suburbanite son of a doctor or engineer and the daughter of a logger. I know the difference between the kid who has no motivation other than going to grade 13 and the kid who was lucky to survive inner city life in Baltimore (making 6 years as a Marine look pretty comfy by comparison). It is no surprise that motivation beats background most of the time, but there are lots of kids in the middle who aren't fully motivated because they don't really believe that a kid like them can do it. I love every success story because I can use it as a seed to grow some more.

That is probably the very best thing about teaching physics at a community college, followed closely by the smaller class sizes and my ability to control the synchronization of lecture and lab. I really enjoy having a class where the lecture section is half the size of a recitation section at a university; where I know the name (not to mention strengths and weaknesses) of every student in the class.

I also enjoy making them think. Think hard. Work on a problem that might take several tries, where the answer is far from obvious. Help them realize that careful reading of a question is as important as algebra if you want to get the right answer. Make them see a familiar phenomenon, like a roller coaster or a flag hanging on the wall, in an entirely different light.

I enjoy making them really think hard when they read a problem. Forcing them to pay attention to detail. This was not a challenge when I was first teaching, either because my students had higher verbal SAT scores on average or because they had been taught critical reading skills in high school. (I have many reasons to suspect the latter, the biggest one being that I see this problem in students who I know have first rate verbal and math SAT scores.) I share Dr. Crazy's interest in this kind of problem, and sometimes have them see if they can write a precis' of a physics problem rather than of a story or article.

I enjoy opening their eyes to what is behind the curtain. Showing them what is inside a switch, or a TV set, or a microwave. Pointing out that size of the antenna on a cell phone is related to the frequency it transmits. Seeing the wave guide on a satellite truck, not just the antenna. Seeing the forces in a bridge, or in a grocery cart, or holding up a bookshelf.

I enjoy teaching calculus (and algebra and trig) indirectly, while teaching physics. I get to teach some things they don't cover in calculus class, like the real skill of applying math to the real world, and I get to reinforce the skills that will really get used. The skills they will need to be fluent in when they get to their junior-year classes in engineering or other science areas.

I love it when I get good questions, and love it even more when they appear perfectly timed to what needs to be discussed next. That is always a clear indicator that at least some of the students are engaged and thinking along with what I am doing.

I even enjoy taking roll in my head, so I can compare regular attendance with grades on exams. Its not all in the homework ...

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