Since accepting my first tenure-track faculty position, I have wanted to create a safe environment for students to ask questions and discuss concepts. My passion for teaching and learning physics has pushed me to create lectures that offer students examples and demonstrations, while encouraging them to appreciate how physics is an important part of their everyday lives.
On the first day of class one semester, I was talking to my students about the course and syllabus. Some of the students looked interested, some were preoccupied, and some were half asleep. Looking at them, I realized that I needed an activity to demonstrate why they needed this physics class and what they should expect from the course. So, I asked my students to each take a piece of paper and, without writing their name on it, divide the page into three columns. In the first column, they were to write their problems, or whatever kept them awake at night. In the second column, I asked them to suggest solutions to the problems in the first column. And finally, in the third column, I asked them to write what they are passionate about. I gave them five minutes, asking them to write the first things that came to their minds.
After collecting their responses, I explained the purpose of the activity. When I asked them to fill in the first and second columns, I wanted them to start focusing on solutions; analyzing what they know and how they can solve certain problems. The third column was to teach them that some of the problems they encounter are because of their individual goals or passions. For example, by choosing to attend college they may put themselves in a situation where they have difficulties paying tuition or may worry about their grades.
Every day, my students deal with many kinds of problems and difficulties. If aware, my students may feel more empowered to act, knowing they have a choice. In my physics class, I envision that my students will learn problem solving and analytical thinking skills they can employ in their daily lives.
After class, I hurried to my office and read the responses of my students. Many students were worried about their rent, tuition, and buying textbooks; their solutions were to find a second job or to get creative about saving money. Some even started thinking about budgeting. These problems were real. My students were going through very stressful times of their lives. These events had affected many aspects of their lives, but with a little nudge, they had come up with concrete solutions.
With this activity, I intend to demonstrate why it is important to practice problem solving skills and to consider how physics can provide applicable real life skills. In adding the third column, I focused their thoughts on their passions or goals for two reasons: when thinking about our passions, we become happier and automatically move toward a better state of mind making it more probable that we can solve our problems, or at least think about our problems in an effective way. The other reason was to help students feel empowered and to connect their passions to any hardships they are enduring. I wanted my students to reflect on their challenges through their ambitions so they could see that they are choosing this path to better their futures. By having chosen their paths and being able to follow their dreams, they should feel more content with their decisions.
Lastly, in the process of reviewing their responses, my overall outlook changed. I learned more about their dreams and their struggles. As educators, when we enter our classroom, we often think about how to teach our subject to our students effectively. We do our best to be understanding and respectful, however, oftentimes we don’t know what our students are going through. It was humbling that my students could share their struggles, hopes, and dreams with me. This activity connected me to my students in more ways than I could have ever imagined!
I also learned later, after reviewing my course evaluation comments, this activity left lasting impressions on my students. Some commented that through this exercise, they were able to learn how to analytically think about their issues. Another student wrote, “The first thing she [instructor] did in class was ask us our struggles and then encouraged us. It was very thoughtful and heartfelt.”
Dr. Nasrin Mirsaleh-Kohan is associate professor at Texas Woman’s University. She teaches algebra-based physics and calculus-based physics. Her research interests include surface-enhanced Raman scattering, interaction of anticancer drugs with DNA, negative ions, radiation damage to DNA and teaching pedagogy and student learning. Dr. Kohan is a strong believer in using hands-on experiences to educate students. Nasrin is a SENCER Leadership Fellow and also faculty advisor for the award winning KEM Club (Kappa Epsilon Mu), TWU’s student chapter of the ACS.