Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Preaching Not To The Choir

I attended a faculty meeting last week and got to chat with faculty members from various departments. This had always been a fun occasion, especially getting to know people that I've never met before.

One of the topics of conversation inevitably was on the students that we get in our classes. As a physics instructor (and I'm sure it is relevant to other subjects as well), we get a wide range of spectrum of students, especially in courses not aimed for physical sciences/engineering students. I was then asked which group of students I prefer to teach to: the physics/chemistry/engineering students, or the life sciences/biology/pre-med/non-science students?

I actually surprised myself when, without hesitation, I replied that I prefer to teach the latter, i.e. the students who are not physical science majors. In fact, if I think about it more carefully, I prefer to teach a physics class to non-science students.

We had a lively discussion on this topic, and I have boiled it down to a simple reason. Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment, but I find it to be a challenge to run a physics class for students who do not really want to take that class, and who are there because they have to.

When you teach a physics class for physics/chemistry/engineering students, you do not need to sell the importance of the material. These students, whether they like physics or not, realize that the subject matter is relevant to their major. There is a clearer connection to their area of study to the various topics that we cover in a typical General Physics course. So stressing the importance and relevance of physics to these students is preaching to the choir.

This connection is not as apparent for life science/pre-med/non-science majors. More often than not, they take the class to fill their required electives, and given a choice, they'd rather take a different class. It also does not help that, among the students, a physics class is often touted to be one of the more difficult subjects. So for these students, there are already a lot of negative vibes towards a physics class. These students are not in the choir.

My philosophy in teaching physics to these students comprises of two factors
  1. I don't need to make then love, or even like, physics. However, I want to give them an appreciation of the importance of the subject matter. You do not have to like something to know that it is still important. I find the subject of Accounting to be a bore and something I can't see myself doing. However, it doesn't mean that I do not realize the importance of accountants, especially during tax time! The students to not have to like physics, but they need to be aware of its importance, and how it has affected their lives in a very significant way.
  2. I appeal to things that they already know, and show them that, whether they realize it or not, they already know a lot of physics. I ask them what will happen if I toss a ball vertically up in the air; ask then which one will boil faster: a kettle with a cup of water or a kettle with a gallon of water; query them of what will happen if I take a corner too fast while driving, especially if the road is wet or icy;, etc. Inevitably, many of the students will know what will happen next, because these are all part of their everyday experience, and this is what physics is.
When I teach a physics class for non-physical science students, I very seldom start with teaching the topic. I usually begin with either a demo, or an example of an application. If this is a class for biology/pre-med students, then the example will be from biology or medicine. It is in my experience that this type of motivation and relevancy are more effective and needed for non-physical science students to get them to pay closer attention to the physics topic being presented.

For non-science students, this, and the conceptual understanding of the physics come ahead of the mathematical description. Often, these students have very weak mathematics, and a few even have math/science phobia. So I resort to using mathematics only in the latter half of the class session after the students are comfortable with the concept being presented.

But the one important reason why my preference is to teach physics to these non-physical science students is because these are group of people who make up the majority of the population, and the group of people who may be in deciding the future of science funding, the public policy on science education, scientific results, etc. This group of people should not leave school with a distaste for physics, and for science in general. They may not want to do science, but they should be aware and appreciate why science is important, and how science plays a hugely significant role in their lives.

They may not be in the choir, but they should not be neglected and not preached to.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

I teach high school Physics, and 100% agree.

I actually gave away my AP Physics courses as soon as we hired a 2nd willing Physics teacher and started a "Project Physics" course for students who have had struggles with math.

And it has been an absolute treat.

Sure I get more behavior issues and more IEP accomodations to work through, but teaching it from an almost strictly conceptual point of view, through projects / contests that each unit is based around, is an absolute blast.