Tag Archives: philosophy

Why teach physics?

To me, teaching at the university level has three specific roles:

  • Student empowerment
  • Democratization of knowledge
  • The betterment of humanity

As an educator, my job is first and foremost to empower students by helping them to learn, access information, and create new knowledge. This process is inherently democratic as it is meant to equalize access to knowledge, so that any student can learn any subject regardless of their gender, race, socioeconomic status, or other factors which they cannot control. Empowering individual students in this way leads to a society that contains more and more well-informed, competent and capable individuals, who will use their knowledge and talents to contribute to the betterment of the human condition. My teaching is meant to be a public good.

The author closing TEDxTUM 2017. Photo by Wade Million.

This may seem like an obvious, if lofty goal. However, there are challenges which must be addressed, especially in the teaching of science generally and physics more specifically. Physics requires not only topical knowledge and strong math skills, but also critical thinking and problem solving, which can at first seem at odds with the way that many students have prepared themselves for the Leaving Cert. In the Irish context, teaching first year physics, I try to help students transition from a rote learning mentality to embrace more complex modes of understanding. I must also address a common fallacy about science, that it is a collection of facts. Showing students how these facts are connected, and that science is a creative endeavour at heart, is needed to progress their understanding.

There is also an elitism around physics, sometimes perpetuated by physicists themselves, that must be broken down. Physics relies on math in a way that few other subjects do, and while math is essential to understanding physical concepts, many students experience ‘math anxiety’ that must be addressed. Using language, demonstrations, and math together helps students cement the basic concepts. Studies have shown that the use of humour in lectures also aids students to remember information better, which comes as little surprise to me after my experience running Bright Club.

A talk I gave about using humour to communicate tough topics.

Often, whether or not students choose to pursue a topic depends not so much on the topic itself as on their own identity: whether or not they can see themselves in physics, whether they ‘fit in’. My own experience growing up surrounded by scientists helped show me what a scientific career looked like and how to access it. But students without this background need more from their instructors: to see scientists as real people, to understand the steps to a scientific career and where it can lead them. This is especially important for women and other underrepresented minorities, who are still sorely needed in physics. Even if the students who take my classes choose not to study physics, I aim to leave them with a solid understanding and positive attitude toward physics, to understand that physics is a way to understand the world around us, and an important part of everything we do.

I do my best to actively engage students in lectures, problem-solving, and laboratory, remembering that people often say that you cannot teach anyone physics, but empower them to learn it themselves. My role is to find as many ways as there are students to present the information and connective ideas of physics. I am inspired in this by my own undergraduate physics mentor, Richard Muller at the University of California Berkeley, who was famous as a teacher for his course Physics for Future Presidents. He understood that everyone, not just future physicists, will benefit from a solid understanding of physics, and designed a seminar style course focused more on interesting and relevant science topics rather than historical sequences of discovery. I take the liberal arts view that physics is for everyone, the same way literature is for everyone.

My aim as a teacher is not merely to get as many people as possible to study physics. It is to improve engagement, understanding, and attitudes toward physics, which is a central science of relevance to every single person. I want to empower students to understand physics, improve their access to that knowledge and understanding of how it is connected, and help scientists and non-scientists alike to work for the betterment of humanity. This makes better physicists, but it also makes better people.

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Two Cultures, or Many?

One of the most pernicious myths in neuroscience is that of the left brain/right brain divide. You have surely heard it before: the idea that half our brain is logical, scientific, and calculating while the other is creative, artistic, and empathic. There is no evidence for such a distinction in the actual brain, but the simplistic categories give people easy ways to identify themselves, and others, as members of tribes with specific values. It’s just as easy to feel good about yourself for supposedly having a brain that’s rational or creative as it is to put someone else down for being too cold or impulsive. This myth isn’t about the brain or neuroscience at all: it’s about putting ourselves, and others, into groups.

false dichotomy

In the pursuit of knowledge, similar false dichotomies can arise. Those seeking to understand science may think of themselves as fundamentally different from those seeking to grasp history or literature, and vice versa. This was most famously written about in C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures essay, where he noted the division and in fact the disdain that had arisen between intellectuals in the humanities and the sciences, and how this prevents people from pooling their knowledge to solve the great problems facing humanity. After all, if you do not respect the source of someone else’s knowledge, why would you bother to listen to them?

We should know better. After all, knowledge isn’t just a dry list of facts, but a set of underlying connections between those facts and ideas, as well as an understanding of context (whether it’s human context or physical context). People who study interdisciplinary fields like nanoscience, my area, know that a chemist can bring a very different approach than a physicist does to the same problem. Often both are useful in gaining understanding. Why not extend this same respect to the social sciences and humanities? And why do we not bat an eyelid when someone says they ‘don’t get’ science, when we’d be appalled if they said they couldn’t read?

In my view, an open mind is critical to any pursuit, whether it’s scientific, literary, or even comedic. Don’t limit yourself by how others think before you; go outside the pre-existing accepted framework to solve problems. Isn’t that true creativity, which is required for any academic pursuit as well as for the simple but rewarding task of making sense of this world? Rather than drawing a line between science and the arts, between types of people, we should share our knowledge and natures, expanding our understanding by sharing our humanity.

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