Reflecting on my life as I write these words, I can identify three things that ignited, encouraged and still fuels my passion for education.
The first was the guidance, mentoring and validation that I received as a young undergraduate from the professor teaching my intro physics class. The fact that he took a personal interest in me—offering me a summer job in his lab at a time when I was very uncertain about my own path in the world—literally changed the course of my life. His actions taught me to love science, to embrace my own education and to revel in the fact that every answer reveals two more interesting questions. This experience definitely shaped my own approach to teaching, research and mentoring. I am very fortunate that as associate head in charge of our undergraduate program, I am now able to have a direct and significant impact on the way that my department provides these opportunities to our own students.
The second was the trust that my department head placed in me as a young assistant professor many years ago, encouraging me to innovate in existing courses, allowing me to develop new classes, and providing me with the time and resources to do both. This led to collaborations with amazing colleagues and to projects that have had significant impact on and beyond our own campus: Physics 123 is a course in which pre-service elementary school teachers learn through hands-on experimentation, feeling excited rather than intimidated by science, and gaining the confidence to find the answers to any question their students might ask; The i>clicker classroom response system allows students in large classes to benefit from peer instruction and has been used by millions of students across North America; SmartPhysics is an online platform that presents both content and assessment to students before lecture, focusing valuable class time on student misconceptions; IOLab is a small, low-cost wireless lab system that allows students to carry out experiments in their dorm rooms (or anywhere else), encouraging them to innovate and think creatively about the scientific process. These projects are a testament to the supportive environment at the University of Illinois.
The third and most important thing was the creation of the Physics Van outreach program way back in 1994 with the help of some wonderful students. Through this program, college students volunteer to perform science shows at elementary schools. It has been a huge success and has brought the joy of science to more than 100,000 children and nearly 15,000 teachers and parents. The program serves as a constant reminder to me of how wonderful our students are: Each year a new group of undergraduates volunteer for the program despite the fact that most are taking difficult classes and many are working and don't really have time. They do it because they are genuinely good human beings and they want to make the world a better place. In return, their own lives are often transformed—a fact that was very clear when 30 former student-volunteers returned to Urbana last March for the twenty-year Physics Van Reunion. They traveled from all over the country, many with spouses and their own children in tow, to share memories and catch up with old friends. These wonderful people have incorporated their love of teaching into all aspects of their lives, touching countless others in the process. Knowing them makes everything I do worthwhile.
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