Steven Pollock - Acceptance Speech

2013 Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year
Steven Pollock
Professor of Physics
University of Colorado at Boulder 

Thanks, Akaxia! And thanks to CASE, and the Carnegie Foundation, and all the supporters of this event. I am very honored to receive this award, and more than a little humbled. Let me start off with a question I like to ask new physics graduate teaching assistants every fall: “True or False – Teaching is an art, not a science”. The discussion is usually heated, and a few grad students are always brave enough to note that I’ve set up a false dichotomy, but even then, the question definitely stimulates productive conversations.

Let me share a story which I really shouldn’t be confessing at this occasion, but which might help you understand my own shift in thinking about this question. When I was a brand-new assistant professor, I was assigned to teach my first upper-division class. I spent a lot of time thinking, writing notes and finding good problems from the textbook. And during the term, I poured my energy into giving interesting lectures. Once in a while, a student would ask a question, which I would enthusiastically answer. And at the end of the term, I got great evaluations. So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, for one, there were only three students in that class (!) And, when I look back, I have to wonder, “What was I thinking?!” What a spectacular missed opportunity to engage those students! Yes, they said they liked it – but it reminds me of the old joke about the former Soviet Union. The workers pretended to work, and the government pretended to pay.

In retrospect, I had to ask myself—what DID they get out of the course? I don’t know the answer—the students graduated and didn’t stay in touch. Probably a bad sign! My exams and assignments were largely of a procedural nature. Had those students changed the way they think about physics problems? Had they grown as physicists? Perhaps, but I had a lot of nagging doubts.

So I did what any self-respecting scholar does when you realize you don’t understand something—you learn, you read the literature! It turns out that a lot of people had been publishing journal articles and scholarly books for a long time about teaching and learning. Who knew? I discovered a community engaged in Physics Education Research. And then, I got the great opportunity to become a Carnegie Teaching Scholar where former Carnegie President Lee Shulman and many others further introduced me to the IDEA of a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. And thus began my career-changing shift in my own answer(s) to the question I started with: is teaching art or science? There is undoubtedly a great deal of art, and craft, to teaching—but it is the scientific aspect, or more appropriately, the scholarly aspect, which allows us to make systematic improvements, to make changes public, to share and investigate and build our educational practices.

I believe it is THIS idea of scholarship which this CASE/Carnegie award supports and acknowledges, and it is this idea which changed everything for me about how I think about (and practice) education. I have learned that research and teaching are deeply complementary activities rather than competitive.

My classes now represent an attempt to create environments where students engage in the material, where learning goals are collectively developed and where impacts are assessed and disseminated. I often still get to teach in upper-division courses. If you walk into such a classroom today at CU, you will see some lecturing, but also extended periods of students arguing with their peers, puzzling over concept questions and working in groups on challenge problems that connect math and physics formalism to common sense and understanding of the world. These are perhaps not things one normally expects to see in an upper-division physics course—but “interactive engagement” techniques are research-based, and the evidence for their success is solid and growing.

Everyone likes to take this opportunity to thank the many people who make our work possible, and I’d like to shoot for the CASE record for thanking the most people!

Thanks to my wife Rinske. Thanks to my students, who define what educational scholarship is ultimately all about! (I don’t teach physics. I teach students.) Thanks to the colleagues in my physics education research group, and the many more colleagues in my department who devote countless hours discussing and debating learning goals and assessment measures, and then opening up their classes (and their minds) to explore possibilities in practice. I thank the University of Colorado community and its administration, which supports and encourages not just classroom innovation, but also the disciplinary study of it. I thank the federal government, which provides (and should provide more!) support for educational research and development. I thank the professional societies, like the American Physical Society, and organizations of universities, which promote professional identity around education. And perhaps most important for me, (at least, after my own students of course!), I thank the physicists and scientists across the country, and world, who engage in discipline-based education research and PUBLISH their works so I can steal, borrow and adapt ideas that build on a base. Have I thanked enough people yet?

If I receive an award for creating and sharing and demonstrating successful classroom environments, I would like to think that the credit really goes to the many communities working to support undergraduate education and to our collective attempts to learn more about how people learn, which so profoundly impacts all our classes. THANK YOU ALL again for your support and recognition. I’m very grateful.