2013 Outstanding Master's Universities and Colleges Professor of the Year
Associate Professor of Physics
Thank you, Mark, for the wonderful introduction. And thank you to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for sponsoring this award and for making this day possible. I’m humbled by this award and profoundly appreciative of being recognized in this way.
As a physicist and a theorist, I’ve always been infected with a desire to know how the universe works. My grandmother jokes with me even now that as a child I used to talk about the stars and Martians and that my mind was always full of ideas about science. I always knew that one day I’d pursue science as a career. But along the way, I unexpectedly fell in love with teaching, finding it energized me as much if not more than my own research.
After coming to Creighton and being mentored by wonderful colleagues and campus leaders, I found that I could combine my two loves. I found a great joy in being scientific about my teaching, in applying the same sort of scientific and mathematical rigor to my teaching that I used in my scholarship. I’m lucky to come from a discipline that particularly values this approach to teaching. Within physics, there is a tremendous support for and esteem for physics education research. I wouldn’t be where I am today without this community and their ideas and their support.
A seminal experience for me as a teacher was attending a workshop on astronomy education given by Ed Prather and Tim Slater of the University of Arizona. The past decade or two have seen a remarkable collaboration between educators and cognitive scientists. One of the things I learned at the interface between education and cognitive science is that research truly shows that learning requires mental effort or active engagement, and that most people require social interaction to learn deeply. In other words, if you’re doing most of the work in your classroom, you’re doing it wrong! I began to think about my own teaching. I’d find myself saying, “If I only polish it a bit more, explain things better…” “I know lecture doesn’t work generally but this lecture will really help them understand.” “Just one more powerpoint slide and this will be perfectly clear!” At this point, I’ll interject with Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results each time. And so I decided to change it all.
Today my courses are primarily project-based; we learn physics through hands-on, active and real-life projects. Believe me, it’s a great shock to my students when I walk in on day one and tell them that today is the last day I’m going to stand in front of the class and lecture! Instead, I take my students to the indoor basketball courts to record and analyze projectile motion. My students learn about quantum tunneling from Uranium decay and dig into historic papers. They learn mechanics in part through modeling the simple system of a child on a playground swing. We learn how to handle systems of differential equations by modeling the zombie apocalypse. Along the way, I’ve had enormously rewarding experiences. I have to say that I’ve probably gotten more from my students than they have from me. I see so many incredibly talented young men and women, and I’ve learned so much about teaching, about physics and about life in general from them. In no small way, my project-based course in quantum mechanics has evolved and been improved through their feedback and is the course it is because of their participation and work.
I’ve come to think of myself as a bit of a radical when it comes to teaching. Or maybe I’m just a physicist with a bad case of pedagogical wanderlust. But more than anything else, I want my students to grow to be in charge of their own learning and to learn and study for their own reasons. I think in academia, we cherish our authority too much, telling students what to do, what courses to take and when to take them. I want to go into a course and have students tell me what they want to learn and why they want to learn it. I think this is true education (and very Ignatian).
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to end with a few personal thank yous. First of all, I’d like to thank my wife, Mary, for all of her support during the years. Our profession is one that requires love and devotion and hard work, but what is rarely acknowledged are the people who pick up the slack in life and take care of all of those other important things so that we can do our jobs. I’d like to similarly thank my parents, who turned finite resources into a seemingly infinite number of books and experiences that made me who I am today. And finally, I’d like to thank my past teachers and colleagues at Creighton, many of whom are infinitely more deserving of this award than I am.
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