Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mourning inspiration

Howard G. Voss passed away last night. He was a former president of the American Association of Physics Teachers and a recipient of the Melba Newell Phillips Award. He was my first mentor and left an indelible imprint on my teaching. He gave me a lot of advice that I hear in my head almost everyday. I will miss him terribly and the world is worse off without him here.

The first time I ever taught, I was petrified. Let's just say that those who know me best are probably stunned to think that I get up and talk in front of people everyday. At first, I had been assigned as a grader to a course, but was switched to being a teaching assistant at the last minute. I cried at the thought of having to go into a classroom and have all those eyes on me. Professor Voss was very supportive, though, and had a natural vibe to his teaching which rubbed off on me. A few of the things I learned from him teaching that course (physics for pre-meds, my second-favorite course after astronomy to teach til this day):

  • If I walk into your lab room fifteen minutes after class starts and you're still lecturing to the students, I will tell you to be quiet in front of your class. - Lab is about the students doing hands-on work, not for the instructor to guide students through the experiment.
  • Just ask yourself, would you want this kid to open up your guts? - It is difficult to dispense failing grades, but sometimes the failing grades are earned.

Other things I learned from Professor Voss as I was his TA for several semesters:

  • Night students deserve a chance. He taught physics in the evening for a few semesters, with me as his TA. We had good students and good enrollments, despite many thinking that there would not be a need to teach physics at night. My love for night-time classes remains to this day.
  • Conceptual questions are important parts of a physics exam. Some students are good at figuring out how the numbers all fit together, but that doesn't mean that they understand the basic physics concepts. Professor Voss would put conceptual questions on his exams that would make me nervous, because he had me make up the exam key before he'd confirm my answers. Those questions showed me a weakness in my own background and a weakness that a lot of students manage to graduate with today. But not if I can help it!

Professor Voss also wrote a letter of recommendation for me on my first job search and just was altogether so important to my career and maturation as a teacher. Thanks for letting me remember him here. My condolences to his family and his colleagues.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Spring Break

As of 2 pm today, I am on Spring Break. And I really need the break, too. I decided to start it off right by heading a few miles north to La Jolla:

From Spring 2010

From Spring 2010

From Spring 2010

Friday, March 19, 2010

Snapshot of my childhood

Soichi Noguchi has been tweeting images from the International Space Station. Today, he captured my childhood:

West coast, California. on Twitpic

Click to see Northern California in all its glory.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Teachable Moment

One of my astronomy students was in my office hours, taking a makeup exam today. I reserve the right to not give makeup exams, and this student admitted that he did not have a good excuse to miss the exam. However I decided to let him redeem himself. As he was taking the exam, one of my physics students came in to ask questions. The physics student explained that he'd arrived at the library at 7am to read the new chapter in advance of class today. He'd also started on the homework and had a few specific questions about them. We also cleared up a question that we had corresponded about via email over the weekend. The physics student thanked me, and then he left. About 15 minutes later, the astronomy student finished his exam and then told me he was sorry. He said that hearing what the physics student was doing made him realize that he could work harder. He was going to tell his friends (!) what he had heard, that there are people who actually work that hard. He just kept shaking his head, as if he'd been truly jolted.

I'm thinking this might be the best bit of peer instruction I've ever seen, and it was completely unintentional. I hope this astro student really will work harder, in all of his classes. Sometimes it is best to sit back and let the students teach each other, eh?