This week saw the last launch for the shuttle Discovery. Contrary to what some people may have heard, this is not the last shuttle launch ever. Endeavor (mission STS 134) is schedule for launch on April 19 of this year. As of now, Endeavor’s launch will be the last for the space shuttle fleet.There is an outside chance that Atlantis will launch one more time but this is dependent upon approval from the White House.
For me, I’ve always known nothing but having a space shuttle program. The first shuttle launch occurred on April 12, 1981 when I was only four. I even remember watching an IMAX movie about the shuttle program when I was a wee lad. I guess it’s because there were always space shuttles I never found them as a source of inspiration in becoming a scientist. I guess it was the first sign that I was destined to become a theorist.
This view did change slightly during my graduate school days. My advisor and I traveled to the University of Maryland for a conference on gravitational wave astronomy. The day after the conference ended I flew home while while my advisor stayed behind to do some collaborative research. Since my flight was late in the afternoon, we decided to spend the morning at the National Mall. This was kinda funny because my advisor is Australian and I’m American. However, since I had never been to the National Mall and he had, the Australian gave the American a tour of America’s national monuments.
Of course, as two astrophysicists, one of our stops was the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. While there we had all kinds of conversations about this or that. One that always stuck with me is the conversation we had while looking at the Apollo Lunar Module. While looking over the tiny module we talked about how amazing it was that the lunar module required so little thrust to escape the Moon’s gravity in comparison to the thrust required to leave Earth. To see for yourself what we were talking about check out these videos, the first of which shows the Apollo 17′s lunar module taking off, while the second video is Discovery’s launch this past Thursday,
Visiting the National Mall with my advisor was one of the most memorable experiences I had as a graduate student. (We also visited the National Gallery of Art, which was enjoyable, but not as inspirational.) It has stuck with me for the last eight years and is still one of those inspirational moments as a scientist.
Fast forward to this week. I celebrated the last launch of the space shuttle Discovery by watching the event live in my office with a few students. It was a great moment. The oohs and aahs, along with the conversations we had about what was going on made for a special moment. The roles were now reversed. I was now the professor and I was sharing science with students. I doubt they viewed the moment on a level as I did when visiting the Air & Space Museum, but it still felt good to share this historical moment with students.
It’s these isolated special moments when I have the opportunity to share my love of science with others that makes teaching so enjoyable. Maybe one day, a few of my students will have their own opportunities to do the same with their students.
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This has been a trying semester. Besides juggling a couple of research projects, I’m teaching our calculus-based, introductory physics course for the first time. The material isn’t too challenging, but writing all those lectures, picking homework assignments and then grading them, followed by exam writing and even more grading, has led to very little free time for things like blogging.
Although this new-prep class has been eating away at my time, I’m enjoying the course. For the first time I’m teaching to a reasonably large (34 students) population of future scientists that don’t have a fear of numbers. Moreover, they’re interested in the material. It’s great.
The one hiccup I have ran into with this class is the textbook. We’re using Randall Knight’s, Physics for Scientists and Engineers: A Strategic Approach. I’m not here to bash the book. It’s not perfect, but it’s not all that bad either. As a colleague puts it, all introductory texts have their warts. The problem that I do have with this text is that it presents some material in a way that I don’t agree with. So the question arises, do I toe the line and teach like the textbook presents the material, or do I move away from the text and present the material in my own manner?
Before I delve into the pros and cons of both sides of this argument, I want to mention that it’s not that either side of the argument presents the physics wrong. Using hindsight and years of experience, it’s a trivial manner to demonstrate how the multiple approaches to teaching the same material are one and the same. But to a student encountering the material for the first time, this is anything but true. For this reason, sticking with one approach and rolling with it is so much more conducive to a successful learning environment than one in which multiple strategies are employed and comparisons between techniques are discussed.
Pros for Teaching With the Textbook
The most obvious pro to teaching with the textbook is that the book acts as a resource to the students outside the classroom. Ideally students are spending time outside of class reading the text, studying the examples presented therein, and doing a few practice problems on their own. In studying on their own, it’s important that the students understand the nomenclature and symbols used by the text. By diverging from the text in the classroom students are left with a competing approach to how the material is presented without a personal guide to set the record straight. Since students are encountering the material for the first time (in the case of an introductory course) alternative approaches can be confusing and lead to frustrations.
To strengthen this argument, for those instructors that do require reading outside of the class (such as for Just-In Time Teaching), it seems to me that they are obliged to follow the textbook style. It would be unfair for an instructor to require students to learn the material only to come to class to find out that that is not the way the material will be taught.
Another small pro for teaching with the text is that the more the text is used, the less students feel ripped off by purchasing a high cost book that is never used. I remember being a student and having professors require texts that were barely used. Why spend hundreds of dollars and only use the text a few times during the semester?
Cons for Teaching Against the Textbook
As I see it, there are a few justifiable reasons for teaching against the textbook. The first argument starts with the ultimate goal: to educate the students. To this end, we should use the best pedagogical practices available that we, as instructors, are comfortable using. If those pedagogical approaches differ from what and how the textbook presents the material, then I feel justified in breaking away from the text and teaching using my own style.
Along those same lines, a second reason for teaching against the textbook is that occasionally multiple texts are used in the classroom. In my particular case, we supplement the Knight textbook with the Tutorials In Introductory Physics by McDermott et al. These tutorials often present the physics in a slightly different manner, using different nomenclature and notation. I have made the conscious decision to use a teaching style that closer complements the Tutorials than Knight. My reasoning for this is that the Tutorials introduce a certain systematic approach to handling forces that it introduces a number of safety nets for the students to work with.
The last reason for teaching against the text is that occasionally there are certain topics that a text presents in an unusual manner that may seem not quite right. As an example from introductory physics, different authors define the weight force in different ways. To some the weight force is simply the gravitational force while to others it’s the reading a scale outputs when an object is placed on top of it. Neither approach is more right than the other. It’s just that feel that one approach (defining weight through an interaction with a scale) is more confusing than simply calling it the gravitational force.
In the end, I think it’s up to the instructor to decide for themselves if they will teach with or against the course textbook. The importance in going either way is to always put the students first. Choose the approach that gives the students the best chance at learning the material. I’ve made the personal decision to teach against the text because I want to incorporate the best pedagogical approaches that I’m aware of.
As I’ve mentioned in prior posts (here, here, and here) I’ve come to enjoy a handful of webcomics. I know, my last post was about a webcomic. And yes I know the webcomic I’m referring to below is over a month old, but I’ve been meaning to write about this since I first read it … a month ago. This one comes from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:
When we think of great physicists we often jump to those that are in the media, not necessarily those that have made important contributions to science. (Honestly have you heard of Bardeen before? Have you even forgotten that he was the first physicist featured in this comic?) Richard Feynman is one of those few that did both. Besides being an absolutely great physicist, Feynman is known for his many antics, including his safe picking, playing the drums, and yes, womanizing. Hey, times were different then. If you haven’t read a Feynman autobiography (such as Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! or What Do You Care What Other People Think?) then I would highly recommend doing so. He was a treat.
Besides the point of this SMBC comic, it also reminds me of a funny story from graduate school. At Montana State all incoming physics graduate students are required to take a seminar on effective teaching practices. During one of the early meetings—maybe even the first one, I can’t remember—we had to go around the room and tell who our favorite physicist was and why. Of course, as someone interested in relativity, I greatly admired Einstein even though at the time I knew very little about him personally.
So here we are going around the room and one of my colleagues mentions that she use to admire Einstein until she read a biography on Al. I guess the biography described how Einstein was so into his work that he often neglected his family to the point where it could be describe that he was emotionally abusive. (I’ve since heard many of the same stories myself.)
It finally came my time to announce my favorite physicist, but how was I to respond after hearing some of the horrors of Einstein’s personal life? I said the only thing that came to mind, “I was a fan of Einstein until a minute ago, but I guess Oppenheimer is now my new favorite physicist.”
The irony of this story is that Oppenheimer was also self-absorbed with his research. He was so focused on his work at times that it’s said that he didn’t even know what was happening in the world around him. This was especially true in his early years. Later in life Oppenheimer did become interested in politics, especially after the Manhattan Project. But it was also later in life he had his own affair.
This brings us to today. Having now learned a bit about some of the great physicist of history I haven’t found one that I would say is my favorite. Maybe if I could take Einstein’s conceptual understanding of physics, along with Feynman’s curiosity and love of life, and couple it with Oppenheimer’s organizational skills and insight, then we would have a mega-cool physicists in my mind. That’s a cop-out. I think I’ll go with Galileo.