Teaching

I taught Duke's Optics and Modern Physics course in Spring 2020 and am currently (Fall 2021) teaching Berea College's General Physics I, Classical Mechanics, and Advanced General Laboratory courses. Course portfolios, containing syllabi, materials, and course evaluations (for completed courses), are available upon request.

Introduction

I was fortunate to study the intriguing subject of physics with the guidance of many intelligent, caring, and inspiring teachers throughout my life as a student. The teaching model that I observed as an undergraduate at Davidson College – learning with small class sizes, attending widely available office hours with a group of physics peers, researching one-on-one with a professor for several years, and getting to know faculty and staff at department picnics and poster sessions – inspired me to pursue a lifelong career of guiding undergraduate students in a liberal arts institution as they encounter an intriguing universe and begin to explore their roles in a complex society.

My aspiration as a physics teacher – previously, as a graduate TA and instructor of record, and currently, as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Berea College – is to teach students about the topics and tools of a physicist, all while developing critical scientific thinking and research skills. I continue to practice and improve my skills in guiding student learning by focusing on student activity in the classroom and the lab, emphasizing a classroom culture of mutual respect and accountability, regularly assessing the progress of students toward learning objectives, and maintaining flexibility in both the progress of courses and the pedagogical methods that I utilize.

Teaching experiences and pedagogical training

In graduate school, I had many opportunities for outreach, teaching, and pedagogical training, including science community outreach through stargazing open houses at the Duke Teaching Observatory; learning about pedagogical practices through the Duke Graduate School’s Certificate in College Teaching and Preparing Future Faculty Fellowship programs; and working as a Teaching Assistant (TA) for several Duke physics courses and Instructor of Record for Duke’s Optics and Modern Physics course as an Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Instructional Fellow. I have also guest lectured in Introductory Astronomy at Duke (evaluated by two colleagues via the Graduate School’s Teaching Triangles program) and an introductory mechanics course at Elon University.

I am currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in the physics department of Berea College. Prior to beginning this position, I attended the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) New Faculty Workshop as well as Berea’s New Faculty Orientation, and I am currently a part of the New Faculty Seminar exploring classroom assessment techniques, student learning outcome writing, and backward course design. I am teaching General Physics I (algebra-based introductory mechanics) with 18 non-physics major students, Classical Mechanics with 7 physics majors, and Advanced General Laboratory with 5 physics majors. In the Spring semester, I will teach the same introductory mechanics course – and therefore have opportunities to improve on the course that I have been teaching this semester – and will teach a special topics materials science course that will explore both hard and soft matter systems for an upper-class physics major audience.

Active learning in the classroom

Pedagogical research has made it clear that students learn better by actively engaging with course material than by listening to passive lectures [1]. In all of my teaching roles so far, I have implemented practices designed to cultivate an environment of student participation, peer instruction, and question-asking. In my Modern Physics course at Duke, for example, I structured class sessions so that group problem solving could be done once or twice between mini-lectures. This semester, I have been using in-lecture concept questions (with ABCD cards) as well as tutorials with practice questions and challenging group problems. Utilizing class time for these activities has numerous benefits – students share ideas and explain their answers to one another, they have time to process and apply material from a lecture, and I have the opportunity to observe what they are learning and what concepts need to be revisited. Particularly with ABCD cards, students approach numerous eye-opening questions in a low-stakes, interactive format, and they are given opportunities to defend their positions (an exercise that, much like teaching itself, can cause one to realize the limits of one’s own knowledge) with one another. I find that, compared with my lectures in Modern Physics in which I did not utilize concept questions, students are more attentive and invested in my courses with the use of this technique.

While my ideal course structure involves intensive active learning components, I am still searching for the appropriate balances among lectures, outside-of-class readings and assignments, and in-class engagement. I recognize that there are many areas in which I can and should grow as a teacher, and I am prepared to try different research-backed methods in future courses, such as minute papers and interactive lecture demonstrations, to help my students learn more effectively.

A classroom culture of mutual respect and accountability

I am dedicated to providing my students with a respectful space of learning and integrity in the classroom, lab, and meetings. From the first day of class, I make it clear that students should avoid distracting one another, respect one another in discussions and group work, share their thoughts when working in groups, and expect respect and treatment with dignity from myself, my TAs (I have several in my General Physics I course), and their classmates. I try to foster a culture of respect and integrity by learning all of my students’ names and pronouns, encouraging student involvement, setting high expectations with regard to both academic integrity and mastery of course content, and encouraging students in both their successes and their opportunities to grow.

Another crucial aspect to a classroom culture centered around mutual respect is obtaining and responding to student feedback. In my Modern Physics course, students held me accountable to focusing on helping students reach my learning outcomes by providing formal feedback in two mid-course surveys and informal feedback after class or in office hours. This feedback from students was invaluable in helping me develop an environment that was more conducive to learning by, for instance, changing how I utilized the blackboards in the classroom and how I administered reading quizzes. Several of the responses students wrote in that course have been useful in designing my courses at Berea College – and mid-October this semester, students will provide mid-semester feedback for my General Physics I course through Berea’s Center for Teaching and Learning. In my classes, students’ voices and experiences are valued and taken into consideration as we approach the optimal balance for content covered, depth of understanding, workload, and learning through multiple means in order to maximize student learning.

Evaluation of progress toward learning outcomes

Clear, measurable learning outcomes should be the priority for designing any class and its components [2]. As I begin planning course content, I write learning outcomes to guide my decisions about assessment methods and the content of these assessments. My students are given many opportunities for low-stakes, formative assessment of progress towards course learning outcomes in the form of in-class tutorials, pre-class reading quizzes, problem sets, pre-labs, and lab reports. Summative assessments that evaluate achievement of student learning outcomes include examinations, and in some cases such as my Modern Physics course, a final research project in which students explore the physics literature to find an article of interest and discuss the primary points of the paper.

I have learned much through the process of writing and grading assignments, especially the need to consider more carefully the difficulty of problems or tasks for students at the level of understanding expected for and time allotted to my course. In any case, writing learning outcomes will always be critical to course design, and my students will continue to have opportunities to show both themselves and me the progress they are making throughout a semester. One concrete goal I have for future courses is to explicitly write out learning objectives on all or most assignments so that my students can clearly see how each assignment brings them closer to achieving the overarching course goals.

Flexibility with students and my teaching

A very important aspect of my teaching philosophy is that teachers need to be flexible, both with students experiencing difficulties in a course and themselves as they continue to adopt more effective teaching practices based on their student population and their own strengths. One of the most challenging aspects of teaching for me so far, whether as a graduate student or new faculty member, has been adjusting my expectations in a class that is influenced strongly by the difficulties of the coronavirus pandemic. I have needed to adjust the course pace and workload accordingly, and students and I are now better calibrated given the need to review essential background that was not necessarily discussed in as much depth during the pandemic semesters as it normally would have been.

Flexibility also applies to my growth as an instructor. As I have mentioned earlier, I am passionate about helping students learn, and I recognize that there is much learning that I have ahead as I pursue a career focused on teaching undergraduates. I am excited to develop as a teacher alongside my future colleagues, from whom I would gladly consider advice, ideas, and observations, in College or University programs designed to aid faculty teaching development, and through active engagement with teaching-focused organizations such as the AAPT.

[1] L. Nilson, Chapter 12: Making the Lecture a Learning Experience, Teaching at its Best, 3rd ed., Jossey-Bass (2010).

[2] M. Svinivki and W. J. McKeachie, Chapter 2: Countdown for Course Preparation, McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 13th ed., Wadsworth (2011).

Zoom lecture on Bose-Einstein statistics and superfluid helium in Spring 2020. We were doing the best we could given the circumstances!