A PDF of my Teaching Philosophy can be downloaded here.

I love teaching physics. I had my first formal teaching experience as a senior in high school and my first exposure to physics as a sophomore in college; ever since, I have been seeking out ways to combine these two passions. Whether as a lead instructor, teaching assistant, individual tutor or outreach volunteer, I thoroughly enjoy facilitating the discovery and understanding of interesting physical phenomena. In particular, the two years I spent teaching physics at an all-girls high school provided me with some of the most thought-provoking and rewarding experiences of my life. These experiences were so significant, in fact, that they compelled me to leave this job I adored to obtain the training necessary to reach a more diverse audience and have a deeper impact. I thus returned to graduate school to hone my skills as both a physicist and educator. In doing so, I have had time to reflect on what kind of teacher I want to be: the kind who shows her students that physics is a fascinating and accessible subject, uses research-based methods to create an engaging learning environment, and fosters a love for learning and pursuing challenges.

Whenever I teach, I try to see the class from the student’s perspective by repeatedly reminding myself of the challenges involved in learning. I find it useful to ask myself questions like: What did I find tricky when I first encountered this concept? What new vocabulary might my students not be familiar with? What do I want my students to be able to understand about the physical world that they could not before? Additionally, I aspire to break the stigma that one’s ability to understand physics is solely a “gift,” in part by avoiding words like “obvious” and “trivial,” which are often misinterpreted by students to mean “understood without effort.” Along similar lines, I believe it is important to praise the students’ efforts rather than just their results (see Selected Comments on Students). That way, I emphasize the thoughtfulness required in the learning process and not the immediate outcome, as each student will undoubtedly learn the concepts at a different rate. By making a clear distinction between formative and summative assessments, I also show my students that achieving mastery of a concept takes time and effort.

In order to best serve my students it is also important that I learn about their interests, educational backgrounds and future goals. In my AP Physics C class at the Winsor School my students’ first assignment was to write a short essay prompted by the question “Why Physics?” (see Why Physics Assignment).  Many students wrote about how physics fit into their future goals, their identity as physics students, and the level to which physics intimidated them (previously or presently). Knowing their individual thoughts on these issues allowed me to meet each student’s needs as an educator much more deeply.
I also recognize that no matter how clear and insightful my thoughts on physics are, research has shown that passively listening to lectures is not an efficient way to learn. Therefore, I engage my students in peer instruction, group problem solving, and hands-on activities. For example, in my AP Physics C class I gave my students three or four “Checkpoints” interspersed throughout each class session. These were typically multiple-choice problems, ranking tasks or short answer questions. The students would then “think-pair-share,” which meant they would first think about how to approach the problem by themselves, then they would pair up with a neighbor to compare their results, and finally they would share their ideas with the whole class. I found that, through this process, my students were often able to convince each other of the correct answer without relying on my approval.

Another activity that promoted productive small group discussions was a “Physics Treasure Hunt” (see Treasure Hunt Activity) I designed as a teaching assistant for Duke University’s Fundamentals of Physics course. Instead of taking another weekly quiz (which, despite my best efforts, was often approached with a plug-and-chug mentality), the students had to navigate a series of conceptual multiple-choice questions, where each answer corresponded to a different person in the department. Each team had to come to a consensus on the answer and then find the corresponding department member to see if they were right. One of the many positive outcomes of this activity was that the students were still talking about it weeks later. It could be because they enjoyed the game-like aspect of it, but I suspect that it was at least partly because the questions reinforced the idea that the laws they had been memorizing all semester actually contained information they could use to understand a variety of real-world situations.

In fact, when taking physics for the first time, it is surprisingly easy to forget that the point is to understand something about how
the world works. To remind them, I give my students many opportunities to experience the concepts they are learning. I will never get tired of seeing the look on a student’s face when she feels the torque on her body due to a rotating bicycle wheel; or hearing the screams that inevitably follow a test tube disappearing in a vat of mineral oil; or the satisfaction that comes when every person in the class successfully pulls a tablecloth out from underneath a set of dishes. These activities not only make class time more exciting, but can also make the material more relevant, memorable and understandable.

In my future teaching endeavors, I would like to flip my classroom (move the content delivery outside of class, freeing up class time for concept application activities) with techniques developed by education researchers. My first experience in a flipped classroom was as a student myself in Workshop Physics at Pacific University. While this course required more in-class effort than my other classes, I appreciated that I was able to spend every minute of class time engaging with the material in a hands-on and meaningful way. I am also assisting informally with Duke’s Fundamentals of Physics course, which is being taught using Team-Based Learning (TBL) for the first time. When I was asked to run the class, I was impressed with how many opportunities there were for profound learning to take place. For example, after handing out a problem for the teams of students to work on that required using a binomial expansion approximation, I noticed that each team eventually became stuck. I was able to talk with each group soon after the confusion set in and give them a brief review of the approximation method. For some groups, that was all the help they needed to finish the problem. I then modified the problem slightly, making it a little more challenging, and asked them to think through how they would solve this new version. For the groups that became stuck again, I was able to interject one or two more hints to put them back on track. Once all the groups had finished, we had a wonderfully detailed class discussion about when and how to use the binomial expansion approximation, which was readily absorbed by the students after having just played with this method. Additionally, one student approached me after class to ask where she could get more challenging problems like this one. I was ecstatic to see that the TBL approach helped create an environment where the students not only felt safe, but also were excited to take on increasingly difficult tasks.

Lastly, for me to grow as an educator, I have found it helpful to solicit feedback from my students and colleagues on the quality of my course design and instruction. This can be done with anonymous student surveys throughout the term (see Summary of Student Course Evaluations) and by regularly discussing pedagogical issues with my colleagues. In particular, I have found in-class observations (both observing and being observed) to be extremely valuable professional development activities. For example, when I first made the transition from teaching at the college level to teaching at the high school level, I needed to quickly learn how best to approach this different age group. Having another physics teacher sit in on my class brought subtleties to my attention (like when it is best to use numbers rather than variables) that might otherwise have taken me much longer to recognize. After returning to graduate school, a physics professor asked me to observe his class and provide feedback. I hope my comments were useful to him, and I know that sitting in on a class with the sole purpose of evaluating the effectiveness of the teaching, and then later having a lengthy discussion about my observations was extraordinarily beneficial to my continued development as an educator.

The elements I have described above are, to me, what educational environments should be about: not only providing a platform to deliver information to its members, but creating a community where students and teachers collaborate effectively to continually develop their potential and passion for learning.