Before graduate school I spent two years in Baltimore, Maryland teaching high school physics as a Teach For America corps member. Being a new teacher is a challenge, but amongst these challenges I discovered that I really enjoy teaching. It is a lot of fun! I also learned that I missed research and the academic setting—teaching and doing research at small liberal arts college is where I want to be. Beyond this, my time in Baltimore fundamentally shaped my beliefs and practices in teaching. For every lesson I taught my students, I learned something in turn. Through these lessons I came to believe students learn best when instruction is student-centered, all students can learn regardless of external factors, and if students are not learning I must look to what improvements I can make in my own instruction. While these beliefs were honed over two-years in front of nearly four-hundred inner-city teenagers, they continued to serve me and my students well in classes at Cornell University.
A simple teacher-centered lecture, while good for conveying lots of information, gives little opportunity for students to interact with new concepts and build their understanding. For students to truly understand an idea they need to discuss, practice, explore and ideally teach what they have learned to a peer. As a result, ideal instruction is student centered allowing the student to intimately engage with new concepts as they are presented. As a physics teacher in Baltimore I used modeling instruction. I had students begin by developing their own experiments to discover the laws of physics, like using a horizontal pulley and cart to discover Newton’s second law of motion. The students then worked in groups to apply their newly discovered laws to example problems. They would present the solutions to these problems, discuss them, and critique each other with little involvement from myself. As a teaching assistant at Cornell I continued using student centered techniques in the recitation sections I taught and when giving guest lectures for introductory astronomy. I used Think-Pair-Share questions, Astronomy Lecture Tutorials, and my own group activities to allow students to interact closely with the material and develop a strong understanding of the material covered in lecture.
Teaching in Baltimore I saw first-hand the importance of believing that my students can achieve regardless of their poverty, previous school experience, or home life. It was important that I didn’t make excuses. When I administered a test and most of my students failed, I could have thrown up my hands and said, “They just can’t learn, they have too many things working against them.” But, if I did this my students would learn nothing, and I would compound the already dire situation in which many of them lived. Instead, when my students don’t perform up to my expectations I ask questions. Why did they not do well on the test? Was my instruction not good enough? Was the test poorly written? Were my students not well rested for the test, and if so what can I do to help that? Had I gone through the material too fast? Do I need to take things slower & give my students more opportunities to practice the material. Teaching at the college level can of course be a little different. Attending college, for most, is a personal choice. This means college students have some responsibility to ensure their own success in college. However, a student’s personal responsibility doesn’t absolve me of my responsibility to ensure that students are in fact learning. As a teacher I must ask why my students may not meet my expectations and if I have the power to address the cause of my student’s failure I must. This could be anything from improving my instruction to refining my exam questions, to recommending a student seek-out tutoring. Or I may need to meet with the student one-on-one to review material and discuss with them what outside factors might be affecting their performance.
Being a good teacher is not a destination, but a journey where I must continually seek out professional development opportunities like workshops, trainings, classroom observations, or even discussions with colleagues to continually improve my instruction. This journey begins in the class room where I must assess my teaching methods and determine whether or not my students have in fact learned anything. I begin assessment on the first day of class with a diagnostic to determine what knowledge, skills, and misconceptions students are bringing with them. Next, I perform daily assessments. Using a Think-Pair-Share question(s) before a class begins, during, and then after, I determine how well my students have learned that days material and decide if I need to reteach in a better way, or can move on to the next topic. As an added bonus, Think-Pair-Share questions are also instructional and help students to better learn the material. Quizzes, unit tests, and the final exam are also important tools of assessment as they allow me to determine how well my students have retained material over the entire course. Lastly, I have students retake the diagnostic at the end of a course to measure the relative growth of student understanding over the semester. After assessing my students’ learning I may find that I need to seek out better instructional methods. Luckily there is a very active community of educational researchers in both physics and astronomy that have created excellent resources that I can utilize to help improve my teaching and my students learning.
While I find teaching astronomy and physics a lot of fun, I also believe it is vitally important. I believe that for students to be responsible citizens and to have limitless possibilities for their futures they must be critical thinkers—capable of making reasoned decisions in their everyday life as well as their chosen profession—and understand the rudiments of science. This is what astronomy and physics can provide students. It can give them critical minds, an appreciation of how science is done, and enough knowledge that they will find success in a world that is ever more technological. However, students can only gain these things if they are truly learning the things I teach. My belief in the need for student-centered instruction, believing all students can learn, and assessing and improving my instruction does just this—ensure my students learn.
I am willing to teach all physics and astronomy courses at any level. However, I am most interested in teaching an introductory astronomy course for non-science majors as well as an upper-level introductory astrophysics course for physics and engineering majors. I think both courses should feature an observing component. The upper-level course would assume no prior astronomy knowledge but would feature math and physics expected of a junior or senior undergraduate physics major. For physics courses I am most interested in major and non-major introductory physics courses as well as upper level courses like optics, E&M, and quantum mechanics that match my expertise. Lastly, I am interested in developing an introductory astronomy course that would be exclusively for current and/or future elementary teachers. Astronomy provides many easy and engaging ways to teach scientific concepts to students, especially if a teacher has limited resources. The astronomy course for elementary teachers would feature lab and observing activities that the teachers could take and use in their own classrooms.