My ambition is to help people understand how to break any complex and seemingly unsolvable problem, whether academic or personal, into simpler, solvable problems. Throughout my experiences, people gain more from a lesson when the material is visceral and relatable.
When it comes to physics, I try to solve non-traditional complex physics problems and reduce them into the most basic concepts (i.e., inclined plane, projectile motion, resistor circuits). My approach is similar to Randall Munroe’s in his book What if?, where he provides “serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions.” The simplicity of canonical problems provides us with conceptual understanding while the complexity of the problems relates concepts. For example, I was asked by one of my college level introductory physics students about consuming ice and ice water as a diet. As a class, we reduced this diet into a lesson on phase changes and latent heat, and we were able to connect the lesson to more than one person’s experiences. I have also used this style with high school students for other subjects.
Ruston High School located in Ruston, Louisiana, invited me to lead a discussion on Romeo & Juliet. The teacher asked that I relate the National Geographic article “Teenage Brains” to Romeo & Juliet. The article explores the neurological and anatomical developments of the brain and considers the role of these developments on our behavior, especially teenagers. I used the article to explain the responsibility of the prefrontal cortex and its influences on each student’s choices in life. The students were then able to grasp the complexity of emotionally lead decisions and the irrationality of Romeo and Juliet’s actions while learning how to make better decisions for their lives. The teacher later told me that the students asked for me to return for more classes. However, me simply returning for thought-provoking discussions is only a portion of the challenge. At some point, students must take responsibility for their growth—this is where perseverance dominates the classroom.
Life and learning alike are about perseverance, not about innate ability. My sentiment on perseverance is perfectly articulated in Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, where he writes about the UC Berkeley professor Alan Schoenfeld teaching algebra to a woman named Renee. As the story starts, Renee is seated at a computer that allows her to plot linear functions. Schoenfeld gives Renee the task of plotting a vertical line, which Schoenfeld knows is impossible (vertical lines have undefined slopes). It takes Renee twenty-two minutes to realize that the slope is undefined. For comparison, Schoenfeld asked a group of high school students how long they would work on a problem before quitting. The average time was two minutes. This implies that the likelihood of a student to learn a given lesson is directly related to their ability to persevere. Moreover, a person's perseverance can be directly related to their incentive to complete the given task, just as is in life. In my experience, educators can provide incentive by relating the lesson to the students' lives.
In summary, my teaching philosophy is centered on incentivizing students to learn by relating the lesson to their lives.