John H. Wise, School of Physics (February 2015)
Education is the cornerstone of the improvement of global society and our quality of life. Our students are the next generation of engineers, scientists, educators, and leaders. I believe it is essential to provide them with an exciting and engaging learning environment that stimulates their inner curiosity, thereby ensuring humanity’s technological and societal progression. Georgia Tech is one of the leading universities in the nation, but our student population is not homogeneous. They come from diverse backgrounds and arrive here with varied knowledge and skills. It is our duty as educators to positively influence every student regardless of background, from providing extra help for those who struggle to inspiring those who excel to go above and beyond.
Physics is the mathematical and conceptual description of nature and the universe at large, and it is my job as an educator to convey to students the usefulness of physics and how exciting it can be. In the past four years, I have taught Introductory Physics II (PHYS 2212) three times. This is a core course in nearly all majors, so it has given me the opportunity to impact a large portion of the Georgia Tech student population, broadening their knowledge of the inner workings of the universe. In addition to teaching introductory courses, I have developed an upper-division course on the fundamentals of astrophysics (PHYS 4347) and a graduate-level course on cosmology and galaxies (PHYS 8803). My teaching experience so far has led me to the conclusion that in order to effectively communicate and teach physics, instructors need to (1) demonstrate the relevance of the subject to real-world applications and beyond, (2) make an effort to relate to their students and really care about their success, and (3) continually seek to improve their teaching abilities.
The relevance of physics
Introductory Physics II, which focuses on electricity and magnetism, contains several abstract concepts that are difficult to visualize, making it hard for students to grasp their relevance to real-world applications. Therefore, I find it essential to discuss the applications of the physics concepts at the beginning of each class, along with using memorable demonstrations and videos that make a lasting impact on the students. Furthermore, I often relate the class topics to my research in astrophysics to show how physics applies not just in our world but also in the whole universe. These efforts enforce the idea that electricity and magnetism impacts everyday life and beyond, further motivating our bright students to obtain a deeper understanding of physics and utilize this newly-found knowledge in their upper-division classes and future careers.
Relating with the students
I am a Georgia Tech alumnus (Class of 2001). This puts me in a fairly unique position to relate with the student lifestyle at Georgia Tech and their struggles with the intense coursework that paves their way to a degree. Throughout the semester I tell them brief, sometimes amusing, stories about my experience with physics at Georgia Tech a decade and a half ago. Connecting with the students on a personal level makes professors more approachable, which can be the crucial impetus for a struggling student to seek further help outside of class. I want all of my students to succeed, so I make myself available to them with extended office hours, pre-test review sessions, and by giving priority to their emails at all times, day or night. Additionally, I strive to actively engage the students during class through lively lectures that effectively convey my enthusiasm for physics, motivating them to push their intellectual limits. Some of my most effective demonstrations and videos involve internet or popular culture, creating a potent learning gateway that grabs and keeps their attention.
Professors in tier-1 research universities are primarily hired for their research efforts, not necessarily for their teaching excellence. It is not uncommon for new faculty to have little to no training in education. Admittedly, I was in this group when I first started as faculty. When I was presented with the opportunity to participate in the Workshop for New Physics and Astronomy Faculty held by the American Association of Physics Teachers in November 2013, I jumped at the chance to be exposed to effective pedagogical techniques. During the workshop, I continuously thought about how to incorporate new ideas into my classes at Georgia Tech. I now encourage social learning by using the think-pair-share technique with two-phase clicker questions, where students first answer the question alone and afterwards they can discuss their thoughts and debate the concepts before answering a second time. I also aid students in their understanding of the “big picture” by using visuals such as 3D computational models of electric and magnetic fields. My teaching style vastly benefited from this training, as shown by the improvement in my CIOS teaching effectiveness score, which for PHYS 2212 has gone from 4.0 the first time I taught the class to 4.9 when I taught it in Fall 2014.
In addition to being dedicated to the education of Georgia Tech students, I strongly believe that teaching must expand outside the classroom and into the general public. I have been involved with several outreach efforts that primarily disseminate my group’s latest research results on galaxy and star formation to both the K-12 and adult population. I have utilized my vast experience in scientific visualization to build the Center for Relativistic Astrophysics Visualization Lab that is comprised of a stereoscopic projection system and a 16-monitor wall. I pounce on every opportunity to share our findings through intuitive and visual media to the public, including remote education through the Direct-to-Discovery program, where we can stream 3D interactive videos to geographically distant K-12 schools. We have also used this technology in the inaugural Atlanta Science Festival, for which we constructed a system where people used a Nintendo Wiimote to collide galaxies by “throwing” one galaxy at another.