Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year
Christopher M. Sorensen
University Distinguished Professor of Physics
Kansas State University
My teaching philosophy centers on respect for my students. On the surface, they may at first seem less than serious about their studies. But beneath that first image lie their goals of building a better self and working for a better future, and it's my job as a teacher to help them reach these goals. When I respect my students, it sets me on the right course. It lends gravity to my mission and thereby leads me to do the best job I can.
Respect works both ways. I need to gain students' respect. It is not enough that I am a senior professor. Every day, I have to set an example of care for learning and the discipline of hard work. I also have to be real, using humor and revealing minor foibles. When I have won their respect, and when they see that I am human, then the divide between professor and student closes and they will trust me and listen to what I have to say.
Finally, there's all-important passion. I show students my passion for physics and for intellectual pursuits in general. If I have gained their respect, then they will see that it is okay to be passionate about a subject and to even display that passion in public.
It's easy to make physics come alive. It's all around us! The light bulb that illuminates my desk, the electronics of this computer, the friction between my backside and the chair that keeps me from sliding onto the floor. The copper atoms in that penny on my dresser, atoms that have been through a supernova explosion! What a story those atoms could tell us if we would only listen. Indeed, we do listen through the method of science.
How does that transfer to the classroom? I modified a two-semester engineering physics course to include 130 hands-on lab demonstrations we call the New Studio. For example, one of the demos lets the students experience a moment of zero gravity. They stand on a table holding paper cups poked with small holes and filled with water, then jump off the table and watch as, for a split second of zero gravity, the water stops flowing from the holes.
A similar concept I developed for teaching applied optics was awarded a National Science Foundation grant. These approaches are all about creating a paradigm of hands-on interactive instruction in future upper-level science and engineering courses.
Making physics relevant can happen at all levels. To enliven the concepts of Physics 101, I've replaced about a third of the standard textbook content with readings from the original work of great scientific minds such as Galileo, Newton, Faraday and Einstein. This approach gives the students an increased awareness of how science is done and how scientific ideas develop.
Ultimately, what I love most about teaching is that there's a wonderful feeling you get when you have really connected with the class. It's hard to describe and it doesn't happen all the time, but when that connection is made, everyone knows it. Now you are in resonance, on the same wavelength; now you are one.
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