1;2c myteaching

TEACHING Marc Sher–self-evaluation

When I arrived at William and Mary 24 years ago, I had extensive teaching experience, having taught 9 or 10 courses since my Ph.D., ranging from freshman physics to quantum field theory. I've always loved teaching, and one of my strongest motivations for accepting the offer was the ability to work with spectacularly good students at a research institution where teaching matters.

There are several types of teaching done by physicists. There are the large lecture classes, generally for freshmen or for non-majors; the 20-30 student courses for sophomore, junior and senior physics majors, and the 5-10 person graduate courses. During my 24 years at William and Mary, I have taught at all three levels.

Generally I prefer teaching either large lecture courses or the undergraduate major courses. I'm not really sure why. I really enjoy explaining how exciting physics can be, and when teaching a graduate course, I'm preaching to the converted. It isn't that I don't like teaching graduate courses---I've taught such courses for three years at William and Mary---but I don't feel as enthusiastic about them. My teaching evaluations (on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the highest) typically average 4.3-4.4 in undergraduate courses, and 4.0 in graduate courses.

 

During my second year at William and Mary, I started teaching Physics 176---Astronomy for non-majors. The course enrollment had been gradually declining, and was down to well under 100 students. I've always enjoyed explaining physics to non-scientists, and most non-scientists consider astronomy and cosmology to be the most interesting subfields of physics. Everything fell into place, and teaching this course was the most enjoyable teaching experience that I've ever had. I was very gratified by the strong student evaluations (I averaged 1.3 for the four semesters I taught the course)--especially coming from non-majors. After four semesters, enrollment in the course was back up to near 200.

My second summer at William and Mary, I began teaching in the Governor's School for the Gifted in Science and Technology. 40 of the top high school students in the Commonwealth came to campus for a four week course in Astronomy. Every day, the students would have two hours of lecture in Astronomy, followed by a special hour lecture of general interest in some other discipline. There would be an early afternoon lab, and the students would have organized activities the rest of the day. We would have evening telescope sections. For the next six years, I directed the Astronomy program, and hope to continue when the Governor's School returns (we hope) in three years. These four weeks every summer were a lot of fun. The students were enthusiastic, excited about learning, and very bright. The first couple of rooftop telescope sessions every summer turned into bonding experiences, and the students became very close---I felt like a "den mother". Many of the students were turned onto physics and astronomy, and majored in those fields in college, and many have stayed in touch with me. Two experiences stand out. One year, a student named Hans Ackerman attended the school. He was the brightest and most popular student I've ever seen, and we got along very well---I was delighted when he agreed to come to William and Mary. He graduated as a Rhodes Scholar, was named to the USA Today "All-America" Team, and is one of the most promising undergraduates William and Mary has ever had (and, yes, I know about some of them....). The second experience was during the penultimate year of the school, when Comet Shoemaker-Levy slammed into Jupiter. We had just finished discussing comets and impacts (this was fortitous--the schedule had been planned long before) when the comet struck. We all stayed up late watching the feed from NASA, and within a couple a days could see the impact scars on Jupiter with our telescope.

After teaching astronomy, I spent a semester teaching classical mechanics, followed by a course in astrophysics. The classical mechanics went well---I hadn't taught undergraduate majors in a long time, and really enjoyed it. The astrophysics class was less successful. The course was Physics 276 (designed as a fourth sequence course), and had a mixture of sophomores, juniors and seniors. It was hard to find the right level--if it was OK for sophomores, it was too easy for seniors, etc. Although the students, based on the evaluations, like it a lot, I didn't feel satisfied with the course---it was never taught again. I suggested a new course, Physics 476, which would be a spring course for juniors and seniors only. It would be a few years before this course would be offered For the next two years, I taught graduate quantum field theory.

William and Mary has a lot of students who are pre-meds, and for many years our department had not served their needs. All pre-meds must take a one-year physics course, and the only course that we offered that was acceptable to medical schools was the standard course for majors. Since this course required calculus as a co-requisite, students had to take 16 hours just to satisfy the requirement. Many didn't bother, and took a "physics for pre-meds" course at another institution in the summer. Over a decade ago, a new course, Physics 107-108 was instituted. The course was an algebra-based physics course, Physics for Life Sciences, and directly aimed at pre-meds and other life scientists. Although I didn't teach the course for the first semester it was offered, I did teach it for four straight semesters, followed by two more this year. It is an interesting group of students taking the course----most of them take it primarily because the material will be covered on the MCAT and it is required for medical school, and they don't have any real strong desire to learn physics. So it can be difficult to get such students interested in the material. I have the good fortune to be married to a biologist, who has three siblings who are physicians, and thus it was easy for me to find plenty of biological and medical applications of the material. Practically every lecture contains a few applications of the material to medicine, and thus the students maintain a strong interest. As one example (out of over a hundred), we teach how the pressure of a fluid varies with the height. So, I bring in a blood pressure cuff and measure the blood pressure of a student in the normal position, and then with his/her arm raised. The pressure is lower when the arm is raised, and the difference fits the formula perfectly (I then discuss swelling in the ankles, the blood pressure of giraffes, etc.) Many medical students and physicans will tell you that their least favorite course in the pre-med curriculum was physics--even lower than organic chemistry, and thus I am happy to report that attendance in the 130-person class is typically near 90%, and that my student evaluations average around 4.3.

Later, during the spring semester, I taught a new course aimed at advanced juniors and seniors. Physics 476, Astrophysics, is intended to be a "capstone" course, in which students apply much of their advanced electromagnetism, classical mechanics, thermodynamics and quantum to astrophysical concepts. The course was at a very high level, and went very well. Since it is only for juniors and seniors, it will have to be offered every other year, and I expect to be teaching it next spring.

For the past eight years, I've taught either the pre-med 107/108 course or the classical mechanics course. Everything above was written for my promotion review in 1999, so is a bit outdated....the information below is also outdated--the names have changed, but the basics haven't.

In addition to teaching courses, physics faculty also supervised student research. All students are required to do senior theses, in close collaboration with a faculty member. I've enjoyed the opportunity of working with many of these seniors. During the spring before my arrival at the College, I began working with a senior, Mary Crone, on an project entitled "The Environmental Effects of Vacuum Decay". This was a very complicated piece of work, which was published in the American Journal of Physics. Mary went on to graduate school at Michigan, received her PhD in astrophysics three years ago, and is now an assistant professor at Skidmore College. It is very difficult for a particle theorist to come up with projects for undergraduates---it generally takes two years of graduate quantum mechanics in order to be ready to make major contributions. However, I'm always on the lookout for tractable problems, and have had eight senior thesis students. One, Brian Mason, looked at the effects of the lunar density on solar neutrinos which could be detected during a solar eclipse. He found that there could be a significant (50%) change in the number of neutrinos detected, and that the total length of time that the center of the Sun is covered by the moon (as seen through the Earth) was approximately five hours per decade. A 50% reduction over a five hour period could be detected. The expeimenters in Japan and Italy were contacted, and told when these eclipses occur----they have now told us that they will not schedule routine maintenance shutdowns during those times. Brian is now getting his Ph.D. from Penn. My latest student, Tesla Jeltema, is looking at the effects of changing the quark masses on the triple-alpha process in stars. She is an extraordinary student, with a 4.0 in physics, and will be going to one of the top graduate schools next year. Update---Tesla got her PhD in astrophysics at MIT, had a prestigeous postdoc at Caltech, and is now a professor at Santa Cruz

Finally, I have had six Ph.D. students at William and Mary (prior to coming here, I had one PhD student, Ricardo Flores, who was very successful and is now tenured at the University of Missouri). Yao Yuan and I wrote five papers together; she went into software engineering. David Morgan and Greg Dorata received their degrees ten years ago. Dave is teaching at an experimental school on Long Island (and making more than most assistant professors), and Greg is a professor at Manhattan College. Shuquan Nie graduated eight years ago and joined the ministry. My most recent students, Erin De Pree and Gardner Marshall, were always interested in college teaching and got jobs right after graduation--Erin is an assistant professor at St. Mary's of Maryland and Gardner is at the College of Charleston.