I am half in the physics department and half in the mathematics department, so you might think I would teach the most theoretical courses in physics, like electromagnetic theory, but actually I most often teach the least mathematical course, the introductory physics course without calculus. I got interested in this course when I realized that, although physics is mathematical almost by definition, the mathematics is essentially very simple, just the mathematics of proportionality, or, what is the same thing, power laws. When you think of it this way, you can approach very sophisticated problems with simple and effective semiquantitative tools. This is the basic idea behind all the mathematical sciences, but one seldom sees it put so simply.
I offer this course especially with pre-medical students in mind. They need this kind of insight for the medical college entrance exams, but in fact anyone who wants to understand what modern science is, essentially, could benefit from this point of view.
I have spent time in Italy researching the history of the 17th century scientific revolution, which was essentially the discovery of the efficacy of such methods. Modern science looks (and is) so complex that it is hard to see what the basic idea is. History helps us see it more clearly. I use history in my course for just this reason.
I enjoy teaching at all levels of the curriculum, working to engage every student to promote fundamental understanding of the material and appreciation for the relevant applications. I have spent time developing three courses in particular. Electronics provides hands on experience designing and building circuits in the lab. By the end of the semester, students can design a circuit to take an audio signal (like from an iPod) and send it across space, then detect it and play it in speakers. My Gender in Science course attempts to answer the question, "Why aren't there more women in science?" We read primarily from social science literature, and pay careful attention to how the answer changes for different disciplines within the sciences. I also teach a speaking intensive first year seminar called "Science in the Media". This is essentially a current events course that looks at what present-day scientists are actually doing, with weekly guest speakers and frequent presentations by the students. Across the semester, students learn how science actually progresses, the interdisciplinary nature of science and its relevance to many aspects of life, and what scientists are spending their time thinking about today.
In his first few years of teaching at Mount Holyoke College, Alexi became enchanted with the powerful learning environment of the all-female classroom. The desire to explore, collaborate, and discuss is remarkably abundant, and these traits happen to be central to the success of any scientist. Alexi's own mentor as an undergraduate student was a woman physicist who influenced his teaching and mentorship style greatly. Alexi has adopted a number of compelling teaching practices recently developed by the physics education community, all of which are thoroughly researched and proven effective. In Alexi's courses, you will learn by actively thinking, doing, and sharing, not by passively listening, memorizing or repeating. You will be asked conceptual questions in order to provoke discussion and reinforce the importance of conceptual understanding. You will tackle mathematical problems using a multiple-step problem solving strategy to help build independent thinking and feel the power of scientific inquiry. We will often mention historical tidbits and modern day examples that serve to enrich and fortify the learning experience.
Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor Kerstin Nordstrom
I’m the newest member of the department, and I currently teach introductory physics with calculus and the associated labs. And so, if you’re in my class, it is my job to convince you to consider physics as a major.
While part of any physics course involves learning facts, the practice of physics is really a state of mind. It requires a sense of wonder about the world, an appreciation for natural and mathematical beauty, and a willingness to think creatively, explore, and self-reflect. While physics can be challenging, it should never be viewed as difficult. Challenges enable us to harness our creativity, have fun, and feel a genuine sense of accomplishment once we have conquered them. One of my goals when teaching is to develop the confidence and skill sets of students so that they feel comfortable taking on challenges, whether in physics, in other intellectual pursuits, or in their real lives.
To achieve this goal and others, I employ a variety of methods that have been validated by the physics education research (PER) community. Most importantly, class time is a period of active engagement – demonstrations, discussions, and small group work are heavily interspersed throughout a lecture. Not only does this nonlinear approach create better learning outcomes, it also better approximates how science actually works.
Visiting Assistant Professor Spencer Smith
I originally became enamored with physics by thinking about beauty, both the directly accessible beauty of physical phenomena (clouds, rainbows, waves, sand dunes, etc.) and the more abstract beauty of the mathematical structure of physics (symmetries, minimization principles, emergence, complexity from simplicity, chaos, etc.). I try hard to develop student appreciation of this often overlooked aesthetic side of the universe. While this is a natural fit for upper level classes such as statistical mechanics and analytical mechanics, I believe that it is also important to introduce this point of view to students just starting their physics journey. Despite being a theoretical physicist, I am a big believer in using demonstrations often. In my experience they provide a memorable picture that students can use to effectively make the connection between theory and their own intuition. Plus they are just plain fun! Since much of my background is in computational physics, I feel that the use of computational tools, such as mathematica and matlab, in demonstrations and student problem solving is also an invaluable part of effective learning. All in all, I aim to let my students in on the excitement I feel towards physics by using a variety of pedagogical tools.
Laboratory Director Dr. Teresa Herd
One of the best ways to learn is through experience. This is what makes teaching the laboratory sections so rewarding. Students in lab are testing theories, using technical instruments, modeling data, and analyzing real life results. Lab is completely hands on. I help guide the students through lab, but the work is all theirs. It is fun to help them connect physics theories to actual experiments, and recognize how messy data can be when influenced by all the imperfections of the “real” world.
Students coming out of our laboratory will have personal knowledge of uncertainty, error, data analysis, experimental design, and group work. They will be more confident of their knowledge of physics and how the scientific process works.