While an undergraduate at Occidental College, I collaborated with another student to found the Learning Difference Association (LDA), which promoted awareness of learning disabilities and helped students with learning difficulties cope with their emotional, academic, and social concerns. LDA was a huge success: nearly half of the learning disabled students at Occidental were members, and it received the Club and Organization of the Year Award in 2000.
Founding LDA intensified my interest in understanding how people learn effectively. Hearing stories from my LDA peers about how their learning differences created challenges for them inside and outside of the classroom, I started to get a more complete perspective on how difficult learning can be for some students. While mathematics and physics came more naturally to me, I watched many classmates struggle with this material. I realized that some of the strategies LDA students used to accommodate their learning differences might be applicable to help the average physics student as well.
I next developed a physics version of the Academic Mastery Program (AMP), a tutorial program already utilized in other disciplines at Occidental. AMP provided a supplementary workshop to introductory classes, in which upperclassmen facilitated discussion, led problem-solving sessions, and conducted experiments with beginning students. I implemented this program as a sophomore, designed its lesson plans and problem worksheets, served as a facilitator for three semesters, and obtained funding to ensure its continuation.
My objective when developing AMP’s curriculum was to build on a student’s intuitions about the physical world from her day-to-day experiences. I hoped to guide her through a series of questions or exercises – creating a bridge between her observations of the world and the (sometimes unintuitive) problems that appear on typical physics exams and homework sets. Students developed this knowledge not only through pen-and-paper problem solving, but also by performing experiments, creating models using computer programs, and engaging in discussions with peers. My intention was to present the material in a variety of ways, making physics more accessible to a greater number of students.
I continued peer tutoring and advising throughout my undergraduate career. My personal history allowed me to empathize with struggling students and my alternative learning skills proved useful for many. I gained repute among Occidental physics and math undergrads, and my tutoring and advising hours always began with students lined up waiting for my arrival. My talents were acknowledged by the physics faculty who offered me a position as an adjunct instructor.
The year after I graduated from Occidental, I stayed on to work as an adjunct laboratory instructor and post-graduate researcher. The opportunity to be in charge of a classroom of 15 students helped me gain additional perspective on the role of college professor. I started to appreciate the interpersonal dynamics involved in managing a classroom, balancing the needs of the strongest or most vocal with those of students too shy to ask their questions. I did this by not only creating class-wide discussions, but having people talk in pairs or small groups. I made a point of engaging each individual student to evaluate if he was understanding the material. When a student didn’t understand, I would encourage him to talk with a peer who did. This allowed me to move on to other students, while providing the peer an opportunity to explain the concept and solidify her understanding as well. I also encouraged students to work with different people each week so that by halfway through the semester, most students knew each other, felt more comfortable engaging in class-wide discussions, and experienced a more jovial learning environment.
Every teaching session left me invigorated and extremely grateful for the opportunity to help others – especially considering all the assistance I was given when I was struggling. I decided that I wanted to become a science educator. This along with my love of physics research inspired me to pursue a PhD at UC Berkeley.
At UC Berkeley I have been a graduate student instructor (GSI) for three semesters. During this time I taught the entire physics introductory series. The structure of the introductory courses at UC Berkeley involves 2.5 hours per week of lecture with a faculty member, and 5 hours per week of labs, problem solving sessions, and office hours with a GSI. Because the majority of the students’ time per week is spent with the GSI, effective GSI instruction is critical to the student’s success.
During this time, I started to get an even broader sense of the struggles students have with introductory physics material. A major issue for students at UC Berkeley – a public university which attracts students from a wide variety of backgrounds – is inadequate mathematics and science preparation for these courses. I repeatedly saw students who had understanding of the physical concepts and enjoyment of the material, but performed poorly on homework and exams because of weak math, language, or laboratory skills. I tried to identify these students early in the semester, by giving a skills assessment in the first week of class. This worksheet had students describe their background in math and physics and tested various skills that were considered a prerequisite for the class. I would then meet with students individually to discuss their assessment, and make recommendations as to how they might improve in certain areas. This sometimes involved their attending a workshop which reviewed certain math skills or taught a specific computer program. I might even recommend that the most under-prepared student postpone taking physics until he had taken a refresher course in math.
It became clear to me that a student’s success, motivation, perseverance, and determination is highly influenced by her psychological beliefs about herself and her epistemological beliefs about physics. I observed smart, capable students belittle themselves and give up (even when they were on the right track) because they thought “I just can’t do physics.” I saw students ignore their physical intuitions, and answer questions using rote memorization because they thought “that’s just how you do science.” I found it important to be especially encouraging of students who lacked confidence, to be very open about my own academic struggles, and to provide a realistic perspective on the amount of time and energy required to understand something as challenging as physics. I tried to develop in my students a general set of problem solving skills by giving unique problems which weren’t easily solved using “plug and chug” algorithms, but encouraged creativity and deeper thought. My goal was for my students to view physics as a web of intuitive concepts instead of a disconnected list of facts and formulas.
I see my teaching philosophy as a work-in-progress. I believe a key component to being an effective teacher is to avoid complacency by continually making adjustments as I gain more experience and obtain feedback from student and peers. My hope, if given a teaching position at your institution, is to gain a more formal experience in teaching and science education. I am also interested in developing educational projects, assignments, and exercises using astronomical data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which would tie together my research interests with the teaching component of this position.