Saturday, February 9, 2008

Why I Teach (Physics) - The Meme

I put Physics in parentheses because I was teaching long before I taught physics, but teaching physics is my current career and the topic of this post.

This article is a response to a suggestion at Free Exchange on Campus last month that was triggered by yet another of Dr. Crazy's interesting articles on teaching: why she teaches literature. I've been a bit slow joining all of the other responses, including Dr. Crazy's own addition to the meme, an early response from Sherman Dorn that was what first brought my attention to it, and Profgrrrrl's comments this past week that reminded me I still hadn't written about it. Too busy getting rolling through the first exam block of the semester and all the other little things of life.

It is also a very challenging topic to write about.

I probably put it off at first because it is very hard to articulate an answer. It is easier to say why I enjoy teaching physics at a community college, which I will take up separately. Nonetheless, the fact is that I enjoy teaching and have always enjoyed teaching, but there is more to it than that. I'll follow Profgrrrrl's lead for two reasons: I think her approach of starting with history will make it easier to work my way into the topic, and I owe her an answer elaborating on the similarity in the way our stories start.


I also started teaching before I had any idea that is what I was doing. For me, teaching started in elementary school. I was part of a "pull out" program for gifted students, and we spent part of one year on algebra. That came naturally to me (I worked my way through the first 3 or 4 chapters of my Dad's College Algebra book in fourth grade) and I worked with some of the other kids in the very open classroom environment used in that program. We also team-wrote a play, by the way. That continued into high school, but I never considered myself a teacher. In particular, unlike a friend who wanted to be a teacher (but never did), I never took any opportunities to do a pseudo-student-teaching gig.

Except I did. I just didn't see it that way at the time. I taught one day of my physics class, introducing special relativity. It was actually meant as a learning experience for me, which it was on many levels. One lesson I learned right there was that it was much easier to understand (or think you understand) a subject yourself than it was to explain it to others.

I was a math major as an undergraduate, and got asked to be an undergrad TA in the residential college I was in. (Talk about leading edge; we had a learning community embedded within an Enormous State University before the people pushing them today were even in school.) Now I knew I was really teaching, or at least playing at being a math professor. I think I was still more effective at 1-on-1 assistance at that time, but I got excellent training before, and mentoring during, that experience that helped me transfer individual teaching methods to the classroom. That also was the only training I ever got in teaching! It was also the first time I taught an undergrad who went on to graduate school in physics.

I also participated in a really novel training program on interpersonal communication via my best friend, a dorm Resident Assistant. I still use those skills, when I remember that I have them.

Thanks to burnout in math, a recession in the sector that otherwise could have used a really clever programmer and applied mathematician, and well-timed recruiting by a physics professor, I went to grad school in physics. As I commented in some thread over at Dean Dad's, I was "lucky" enough to be in a research group that had more students than money for research stipends. Someone figured I had enough of a clue to teach recitations, and I got pretty good at it. (Really good according to the University, which gave me a teaching award, but I was still a hack by my present standards.) No training there at all, but some really excellent mentoring from another best friend, a fellow physics grad student who continues to be an award winning teacher at his university.

Best advice ever: Be yourself in the classroom.

I then spent a long time (almost two decades) as a post-doc or research faculty member, teaching a class or two or subbing here or there along the way. I even turned down a t-t job in a small department at a university (one with an engineering school at that) along the way. No, I was more interesting in doing research than teaching at that particular time. And, although doing a good job at research most definitely requires the skills of a teacher, when you try to communicate some really new result to people who are learning it for the first time, its not at all the same.

I was quite lucky to stumble on my current job as the contracts that my research position depended on led to a "change in emphasis" where I was working. In all modesty, they were lucky that I was there. I am back doing what I have always loved, if you haven't figured that out already.

Why Physics teaching is important to me

Lives depend on it. Physics is one of the basic skills, along with critical thinking and mathematics, upon which engineering is based. The vast majority of my students want to be engineers, so a bridge might fall down if someone does not do a good job teaching basic physics to them. (If you missed that memo, the I-35 bridge in Minnesota did not fall down because of poor maintenance. It fell down because of a design error made 40 years ago by someone figuring out whether the net force at a joint could be resisted by a particular piece of metal, and got it wrong.) There are some key skills that my students need to learn, and I mean learn for life (not just the next test), if society is going to survive after they graduate.

I take this pretty seriously. I first learned it in grad school when someone told me he decided on final grades in a pre-med course based on whether he wanted to find himself in an emergency room with that student standing over him. Same goes for driving across a bridge built from plans signed by a former student.

The original blog asked about academic freedom. You might think it odd that a well-established subject like physics would have that concern, but it does. There are preachers out there who would want a bogus version of thermodynamics taught so they could use it to justify their anti-evolution preaching. There are people who reject relativity because they think it leads to free love and abortions and would not like to see it taught. We all must stand for the right to teach the truth as we see it.

Why I teach

I teach because it changes lives, for the better.

I teach because my impact on society is magnified by every student I teach that goes out there and does an important job as well (or better) than I could if I had gone into the corporate world right out of college as I had planned to do.

I mentioned teaching someone in an undergrad calculus class who went on to graduate school. It was quite a surprise when he told me he had learned calculus from me, and a bit of an eye-opener. As an undergrad, I enjoyed teaching because I was helping my fellow students figure things out. It was fun to put my knowledge to use, and always rewarding to show off that I could do the hardest nastiest problem someone decided to assign that semester, but it was more than that. I'd help kids who were not in my class. Or some friend's girlfriend who was having trouble with chemistry. That old scouting "do a good turn every day" thing, perhaps. But it never quite crossed my mind that I could help someone get into grad school.

Then there was the day that I saw a picture of a former student in Time. A kid who was in my physics recitation had made a big splash in medical research as a resident. (He now runs an entire building at Stanford Medical.) OK. If someone learns like he did, and has the initiative he did, anything is possible. And I could help make it possible. How many lives has he saved, or enriched. It boggles the mind.

More recently, I saw that one of my better students had earned an MS in Engineering. (This would be one of those non-traditional students, who literally came out of the woods to attend our CC before entering a big university. She did not have any confidence at all when she came in here. Did telling her that she was as good as that guy 20 years ago, the guy now at Stanford, help her see herself differently? I sure hope so, because she is good enough to change the world, too.)

I get some students who are straight out of high school and could go to a university as their first step, but most of the really good ones are returning students. The group of Iraq vet Marines (you are never an ex-Marine) who formed the most interesting cross-cultural cross-ethnic study group I've ever seen. Really smart kids who, for one reason or another, never went to college. The cosmetologist who was brilliant at mathematics and is going to be a chemical engineer. Or the kid who earned a scholarship as a now-honest graduate of a "residential" school for delinquents. We see the great cross-section that the CC was created to serve, and some of them use everything we have to offer and more.

A big part of my job is the same as it is at a university teaching calc-based physics. We all are trying to give them an entirely different way of looking at the world and (simultaneously) the tools to enter a highly technical profession. Few students enter physics with the unique perspective the subject requires. Few normal people see vectors of forces when they look at a bridge, or think about the coefficient of friction and terminal velocity when watching automobile racing, but most engineers and physicists do. When Dr. Crazy writes about how going to college changed her in a way that makes it difficult to fit into her parent's world, I know what she is talking about. My students face that same challenge, in a more technical than philosophical sense, and I am here to help them with it.

I teach to help my students achieve their goals, if they are willing to work at it.

I don't teach to "help" students pass if their bridge would fall down without extra credit or a retry at an exam.

And I teach because I seem to have a talent when it comes to simplifying the complex and clarifying the opaque for kids who are willing to work at it. I've never understood how I make those connections for them, but part of it must be the same talent that helped me make some connections that changed how physics is done in a few narrow fields of little interest to hardly anyone.

And finally, I think I teach because it is in my genes along with building and designing things. My grandmother was a teacher, and one grandfather actually taught physics labs while studying engineering as an undergraduate. And my father taught me all sorts of things almost every day when I was growing up. Things like this week's factoid/ homework example: The average person puts out the same amount of heat as a 100 Watt incandescent light bulb.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am an adjunct Associate Professor of Science and Mathematics at Rider University, active as a substitute teacher and mentor in high schools, and a retired professor of physics from Rutgers University. I have taken extensive notes from my experiences and given them to my protégés. Recently I collected them into a book. I suggest that your library purchase the book for the benefit of students, parents, and teachers.

I just wrote a book, "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better". This is available on, ISBN 978-1-4196-7435-8. May I suggest that you order a copy for the library? The readers will be very pleased!

The reviews are superb. Students, teachers, and professors who have looked at the book give it the highest rating.

Typical comments that I hear are things like this: "Hi, Dr. Aranoff!" said a girl, "I got a 100 on the test! I am so happy! Thank you so much!"

I also wrote a paper in Gifted Education Press Quarterly