My overall goal in teaching and mentoring is to get students to try to reconcile abstract ideas with the world they themselves experience. I have taught a wide variety of students (physics majors, pre-health students, non-science majors, and those in freshman seminars), with subsidiary specific goals appropriate to each group. These include mastery of problem solving techniques, understanding of how to approach general problems scientifically, being left awed by the scale and complexity of the universe while proud that we may be the only beings that can appreciate it, and understanding the role of science in discussions of public policy.
I know of no recipe for success, so instead make constant adjustments. I ruthlessly eliminate extraneous subjects. I encourage students to apply their own thinking to new ideas. I try to set a tone that makes clear that confusion and errors are vital parts of any learning process and should not be feared. I encourage students to collaborate with classmates, as nothing sharpens one’s own thoughts as much as those of another.
When I mentor students doing research, I try to get them to play with equipment or data, to ask their own questions, to design their own tests, and to learn from the mistakes that are an inevitable part of research. Of the 8 undergraduates I have mentored in the last five years, 5 have gone on to graduate school. I am currently mentoring two students who have both won DURF awards. I hope that all of these students left able to laugh at their own bad ideas as I did at mine, and to recognize it when they understood something so well that it fit in with or restructured their own internal mental framework.
Years ago I created a core course for non-science majors. This course has been a challenge (after receiving two Golden Dozen awards, it was depressing for me to see these student evaluations), but I decided to try to make it work rather than give up. After unsuccessfully trying many conventional solutions, I slowly began to understand some of the problems. After a half year of preparation, and with much NYU Ed-Tech support, in the spring of 2017 I piloted a flipped course, in which students view prerecorded lectures at home and work in small groups during class meetings. Instead of getting lost by the middle of a lecture, students can now repeatedly view segments or refer back to previous ones. Questions after each video allow them to gauge their understanding. Statistics gathered from these exercises allow me to identify the areas to focus on in class. In-class activities allow students to test their ideas against those of classmates. I devoted much of the fall to improving the course based on lessons learned from the pilot. The results on the first exam this semester were dramatically better than in any previous year and students are now enthusiastic about the course. It will be interesting to see whether this continues for the rest of the semester.