My primary goal as a teacher is to instill into my students an appreciation and sense of wonder for the physical world, whether it be in a sophisticated laboratory or in everyday life. These elements have motivated my lifelong study of physics, and I believe that even for the most seemingly disinterested students there are ways to make physics personal and relevant. Accordingly, I feel that the biggest challenges are not in teaching advanced courses but in entry level courses, especially those for non-majors. Having taught such a course at the college level, however, I also think that it presents the greatest opportunity, as Albert Einstein stated, to “awaken the joy in creative expression and knowledge.”
In the classroom, I strive to make the logic and simplicity of physics come to life for the students, no matter what their level. For entry level students, I consistently use examples from technology to illustrate how the physical principles being discussed are profoundly important for their everyday lives and society at large. I also strive to use examples from nature to show the students how the beauty of physics surrounds them and that they can appreciate it everywhere. Throughout the term I strive to help my students link the principles currently being discussed with earlier principles to demonstrate the relative simplicity of physics. Accordingly, an underlying theme throughout my teaching has been that - in physics - every concept is built on others and that many principles are just different ways of describing the same thing...not entirely unlike the history of physics itself. I try to instill this perspective by using a series of simple questions to allow the students make those connections for themselves bit by bit. I will often have students carry out example problems at the board, guiding them through the calculations at each step. This serves several purposes in my mind. It helps engage the students and builds confidence that they can solve problems. It also allows me to see “what the students see”, helping me assess in real time if the lecture is clear and well-structured. Lastly, I feel it encourages the students see past the mathematical details that many beginning students find so daunting, focusing instead on the important principles.
For more advanced students, I emphasize mathematical rigor much more so, but not to the extent of clouding the understanding of the physical principals or the rationale behind the solution for the problem at hand. My own experience as a student was that the best way to truly learn the material was to slug through the details on my own, and I trust advanced students to do likewise. Typically the more advance courses represent smaller class sizes, and in such a setting I encourage every student to participate in the derivations and discussions. As the more advanced courses are typically comprised of more “modern physics”, I try to connect the material being discussed to current research topics, hoping to get the students to begin thinking less like pupils absorbing academic material and more like scientists actively applying principles to complicated physical situations and novel technological applications.
To continually grow as a teacher, I believe in incorporating students’ suggestions as appropriate, and have always encouraged students to give feedback often. When class size permits, I make a genuine effort to get to know the different learning styles of the students to make me a better teacher. Whenever I encounter an effective presentation technique, whether from a research symposium or an athletic coach, I try to incorporate it into my own teaching. Likewise, whenever I experience one of the many instances of appreciating physics in my research or daily life – the appreciation that has motivated my lifelong study of physics and makes me very passionate about teaching it – I make a point of incorporating it into a lecture or relay it to my students, so that they too might develop a similar appreciation and passion for the physical world. As a teacher, developing that appreciation and passion in my students is the highest goal I can achieve.
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