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Monthly Archives: September 2015

In my last post referencing The X-Files for a while (in case you haven’t noticed, this is week 3 in that trend), I discuss how we rise above the problems I’ve mentioned in my previous two posts (Sleepless and Duane Barry).

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Changing everyone’s opinion in a short amount of time is of course not plausible. We have to remember our own worth and our own importance, and hopefully someday, others will join in. We take the opinions of those who believe we cannot do, and we show them what we can do. We show them the minds we mold. We show them the content we’ve taught students. We rise above their stereotypes. We demand appreciation for the painstaking, grueling lesson plan drafting, redrafting, and finalizing, as these lesson plans are what get our content across. Getting content across to students is what makes them a successful individual in college – imagine every student came into college with a blank slate of a mind. How terrifyingly difficult for both parties of student and professor. This blank slate of mind of course does not exist for college students, and the world can thank us teachers for that. We rise above the opinions that science professors have about us as teachers so that we can do our critically important jobs.

We meet standards and prepare students for standardized testing, which never will accurately reflect the abilities of a student or his or her achievement. We rise above labeling students as numbers or biasing our opinions from their test grades. We are those who inspire students to ascend to greatness, in the way that we have been ascending all along in an effort to make them succeed.

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There’s a real problem in STEM academia – it’s the attitudes they have toward teachers.

The University of Rochester is an incredibly research-driven school, and with this frequently comes professors who lack the desire to put as much time into teaching as they do into their research. Unfortunately for them, they’re supposed to be building students of the future in their respective fields. Take physics for example. In my senior year, I took the notoriously difficult graduate electromagnetism; it is notoriously difficult due to the book that is used – Jackson’s Introduction to Electrodynamics. I had enough physics credits to avoid this class, so why’d I take it? My response is simple: in the first two electromagnetism classes, I felt I’d learned barely anything that I hadn’t taught myself, and I found E&M fascinating. Additionally, the course was being taught by (inarguably) one of the best professors in the department. I was excited to learn the subject from someone so competent.

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My opinions on the professors in the physics department are not just my own – we, my fellow class, and the years above and below me, have very agreeable opinions on who’s great, who’s just a researcher, and who should’ve stepped down from teaching a while ago. We’ve begged for someone to teach the subjects better, knowing that tenured professors are there to stay, so our begging was for naught. We’d beg to just go a little slower in classes so that we could retain more than 10% of what was being strewn across the board. We’d beg that half of what we’d learned in class would be somewhat relevant to the five hour midterm the night before Halloween. We’d beg ourselves to just fit a little more information into our heads. We’d beg to be able to teach ourselves just one more thing.

Of the 21 people that applied to graduate programs in physics this past year, 11 got it. That’s actually abysmally low in comparison to previous years. But those who got in have a significant chip on their shoulder all of a sudden: they say things like, “I’m so glad I got in… I’d hate to be in a position where I’d just have to get a job or just teach.” What a fascinatingly disappointing statement. I was a TA for more than half my physics undergraduate career. I’d never frowned on the role that teachers play. I’d never downplayed the importance of having someone who could explain concepts so perfectly that you could walk over to anyone in the same class and explain it just as well. We’d all begged together, begged for the mercy of frequently deficit teaching. But here we were now, divided almost in half. I’d decided I wanted to pursue teaching  in my last semester of undergrad, realizing that astrophysics research wasn’t necessarily boring, but just simply was not for me. I was more interested in research issues in physics education – why are students so afraid of physics? How are educators portraying themselves in high school such that students are deterred away from doing physics? How can we get more minorities, both racial and gender, involved in physical sciences? Getting back to the point: did these people who are now off pursuing PhDs forget that part of being a tenured professor is teaching? Did they forget the torture we’d gone through to get As in the upper level classes? Did they forget what it was like to want a good professor? Did all appreciation for a professional that could teach well just get abducted out of thin air?

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There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a professor. Being a professor is an incredibly prestigious, necessary job if we are to advance science. More than anything, I want to become a teacher and build the minds of tomorrow’s astronomy professors. I will teach in a manner, however, that reminds students to be appreciative of what teachers have the ability to offer – inspiration, knowledge, and keys to succeed. The manner in which we are being taught to be teachers provides a foundation for us to expect and encourage success of future science students. We have the power to enhance and inspire, while professors in STEM frequently diminish interest rather than inspire it. Something inspired us to pursue our respective fields, and, in most cases, it was not a college professor – it was a K-12 teacher. Professors should keep that in mind, as they were most likely inspired by someone who taught the subject well rather than one of our quantum mechanics professors who was too engrossed in his research to care if his tests were reflective of what was taught in class.

 

 

 

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I think the above photo very much explains my feelings about the quoted statement. When I walk into a classroom, I am the person who will alter the minds of students. I will be the person to implant physics knowledge in their heads. For most of these students, it will be the first time they are exposed to this level of intertwined science and mathematics. I will be the person responsible for coming up with engaging activities for students based on what the state feels they should learn – not necessarily what I feel they should learn. In the meantime, in an attempt to accomplish one of my own goals, I will be trying to instill in students how awesome physics is and that they should pursue it.

I’d love to see a majority of professors in the US teach physics as well as a group of dedicated high school teachers can. I’ve been in research before, done well at it, and moved on. I’ve collaborated on papers and my name is on one of them. I’ve done various research projects in classes that involved me building further off of highly theoretical ideas, either supporting them or debunking them based on my knowledge. When I was considering what I wanted to do with astrophysics, I liked the idea of research in the sense that I could obtain new knowledge constantly. But I liked the teaching aspect significantly more, and told myself I could even more easily just read up on topics that interested me. This of course doesn’t mean that I can’t DO the research – I clearly can – but simply means that I found it more exciting to be up in front of a classroom explaining things to mentally clear slates of inexperienced physics students rather than debugging a code for hours on end to find a semicolon instead of a colon following my if statement.

I’d love to see a professor be open minded about teaching students about a slew of different subjects rather than what they are just interested in. When I was tutoring second semester general physics over the summer, there came a point that particle physics was involved in the course (even the basics are not necessary and what many feel to be beyond the scope of the course). The basics were built upon, and in general physics II came the introduction of Feynman diagrams. Feynman. You know, that awesome guy who was slick as black ice and came up with these diagrams to explain subatomic interactions between quarks, leptons, and other elementary particles. Confused at the sight of them, I asked the instructor (a good friend of mine) when he’d first encountered Feynman diagrams, as I had not seen them in my four years of physics education. He swiftly replied “graduate school.” Graduate school. Feynman diagrams are being introduced to a group of mostly premedical students, and you’re teaching them something you learned studying theoretical particle physics in graduate school? Interesting. I’ve never seen these introduced in ANY physics class I’ve been a part of as a student or in a teaching capacity, but because he’s a particle physicist, of course he would be interested in teaching them. Most professors that do research carry a significant bias about what they will or will not teach students – an astronomer never wants to teach electromagnetism (unless you’re me, and electromagnetism is in your top 3 favorite topics in physics), a particle physicist never wants to teach Newton’s laws, and a nuclear physicist never wants to teach optics. Teachers must not carry a bias – our curriculum is mandated by the state – we must teach whatever it is they require, and we must seem just as engaged in that as we would be in the topics we like. Otherwise, how will the information ever be conveyed to our students? Certainly they will not want to learn what we seem to have no interest in. But professors with tenure? No big deal. Doesn’t matter if their students fully understand Gauss’s law, because many of their students don’t need to prove their knowledge on a standardized test, and even if they do, they won’t be held back from graduating even if they don’t score as well. poster3-resized-600.jpg

What do we have to do to prove that we can do as well as teach? Do we actually need to prove anything? Perhaps people with the perspective that those who can’t do should teach should make a list of everything that teachers have to do and all the shaping and inspiring they do. Perhaps professors should realize why they get students in the subjects they teach – those students were somehow inspired, more often than not, by a teacher.

 

 

 

 

 

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How do we picture the first day of school as students? Does it involve the nervous feeling of fluttering butterflies and an open-minded imagination? Does it involve dread of a certain subject? Will our teachers like us? Will I get an A in my classes? Who knows?

When I first began teaching in a more professional capacity than private tutoring, I was 21. I was hired by the department of physics and astronomy to be a teaching assistant for a more qualitative than quantitative course on black holes, relativity, and the origins of the universe. The first day that I had to teach was very nerve wracking, as were the second and third. As time passed, however, I grew much more comfortable in what I was doing. I came to the realization of how reliant students are on me to be successful. I was the person that would determine whether a certain aspect of the material was truly understood or not.

As my teaching assistantships grew in number, first days of teaching did not feel so pressurized. Sure, there was some tension, but in the back of my mind, I had known I’d demonstrated the competency to push students to succeed. This in it of itself was proof that I was a successful teacher. In viewing my classrooms, I look for people who are paying attention. I look for those who will be able to answer questions and those who will come up with challenging and engaging questions. I look for scientific language from all of the students – not just “the block fell down the ramp,” but rather, “the acceleration due to gravity cause the block to slide down the ramp.” Additionally, I have a keen eye for recognizing confusion in students – I am usually very aware of when a student does not understand something. Whether I call it out on the spot is very dependent on the situation – I do not ever want to make my student uncomfortable, but at the same time, I do not want this student to sit through my lecturing and be lost. In noticing confusion, I will usually retrace my steps and revisit what we’ve done, reiterating the reasons for why we did certain things (assuming the student doesn’t ask for clarification). This is not only beneficial for the confused students, but also helpful to those that are following along as a revisitation, and helpful for me as a teacher to understand where a conceptual stumbling block exists for students.

This scattered dream of being a successful teacher… how do we line the pieces up? We are inquisitive and observational. We tackle new ways of explaining and understanding things. We are compassionate, patient, and understanding. We expect nothing less than success from our students. We give clear objectives so that we are understood and give students a path to arrive at such success. We have positive attitudes and are risk takers in multiple contexts – we try new activities in the classroom to generate questions and inquiry, for example. We welcome change and adjust accordingly when need be. In this way, these pieces are lined up and feel like a far-off memory – teachers remember what it was like to be younger students. Students are inquisitive and observational. They tackle challenges in explaining things to themselves when something does not make sense. They appreciate the compassion teachers have in wanting them to succeed and want to show the same passion for wanting to succeed. They learn best and retain more when objectives are clear, and they set aside time to ensure they have done everything accordingly. They take risks to understand things in different ways – Google searches, research paper referencing, or trying that cool experiment at home. They are generators of change, while we, the teachers, are the agents.

Teachers and students are not so dissimilar – in fact, I’d say quite the opposite is true if one is looking at a successful classroom.