November 2016 Features

The Physics of Teaching

“I love being part of that moment of discovery when a student understands something for the first time,” says Alex Chartrand, Ph.D. candidate in physics.

Chartrand and fellow Ph.D. candidate Vince Gregoric have a passion for physics and came to Bryn Mawr for the research opportunities. They were also driven by a passion for teaching.

“I’m interested in physics because I love learning how the universe works,” says Gregoric, “but I also love sharing that knowledge with others. At Bryn Mawr, I’ve been able to groom my teaching skills.”

That dual focus is exactly what Bryn Mawr’s graduate programs are known for. Sharon Burgmayer, dean of graduate studies and W. Alton Jones Professor of Chemistry, elaborates, “Bryn Mawr is unique. In addition to having teaching assistantship opportunities, students are immersed in a culture where faculty care deeply about strong teaching along with ambitious research.”

For Chartrand and Gregoric, Bryn Mawr has been an ideal place to do high-level research. Says Gregoric, “My work focuses on Rydberg atoms. I use lasers to introduce energy into atoms and then study how they interact in various energized states. It’s been
exciting to work in small research groups here because I’ve been able to learn all aspects of experiments—not
just one component.”

“I fire lasers at hydrogen molecules in a vacuum chamber,” says Chartrand, “and then study how the protons and electrons of the molecules react.” Of Bryn Mawr, he says, “It’s the place to be if you don’t want to be in the background but up front doing great research with great faculty.”

Both in their sixth year, the pair are working on their dissertations and have begun the search for faculty positions. At Bryn Mawr, they’ve had teaching experiences—in the classroom, in the lab, and in online spaces—that have shaped their teaching philosophies.

Chartrand says, “As a teacher, it’s important to make time for real conversations with students. A one-sided lecture can create a disconnect, but in the lab or classroom, an ongoing and individualized conversation about how a student is understanding the material can have a positive impact.”

Recalling a pre-med section he led, Gregoric says, “Some students had trouble relating physics to medicine. I spent time talking to them one on one about how the study of physics trains you to approach problems logically and creatively. Over time, I noticed a difference in how they viewed the class. The importance of those interactions is something I’ll take with me.”

To further hone their teaching skills, both participated in Alison Cook-Sather’s workshop on pedagogy.

“Many graduate students are future faculty members, so an education without teaching preparation does them a disservice,” explains Cook-Sather, director of Bryn Mawr’s Teaching and Learning Institute. “The pedagogy workshop is about developing the self-awareness and confidence to be an intentional and responsive teacher and being able to adapt one’s pedagogical values to different kinds of institutions.”

Vince_Alex_Lab-21“I liked the academic diversity of the participants—people from physics, math, archaeology, classics, history of art, and social work,” says Gregoric. “It challenged me to adapt practices from other disciplines.”

As part of Bryn Mawr’s blended learning initiative, which combines self-paced, online learning and classroom instruction, both students also had the opportunity to create online videos to help undergraduates gain the math skills they need for science courses.

“I’ve seen students work hard on physics but get hung up on the math,” explains Gregoric. “It’s important to incorporate technology into learning because it engages students in a new way. This was a great opportunity for
me to practice.”

Chartrand agrees and adds, “Working on the videos was a great opportunity to develop a useful tool for students and also a creative outlet for me.”

Looking ahead, Chartrand and Gregoric say they hope to find faculty positions at places like Bryn Mawr. Says Chartrand, “The small size and personal attention in learning, on top of really good research; it made all the difference for me as a student. I want to be a part of that as a teacher, too.”