SERVE Grant Awarded to Physics Learning Assistants

Two SPU Physics Learning Assistants (LAs), Heidi Rowles and Michael Wilcockson, along with Assistant Professor of Physics Hunter Close, were awarded a grant through the Spiritual and Educational Resources for Vocational Exploration (SERVE) program. The grant allows them to travel to the 2011 American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) winter meeting in Jacksonville, Florida, in January.

There, Heidi and Michael will offer presentations at a targeted session showcasing LAs from around the country for physics faculty interested in launching LA programs at their institutions. Michael and Heidi plan to present about the transformation of their own perspective about teaching and learning as a result of participating in SPU’s LA program, and the impact of this transformation on their sense of vocation.

The abstracts that Heidi and Michael submitted for their presentations are below. The Physics Department is excited to be able to send these students to share their experience at a national level and to possibly influence other LA programs.

How Learning About Learning in Physics Changed My Future Career
Heidi K. Rowles, Hunter G. Close, and Rachel E. Scherr
Heidi Rowles

As a student working toward a degree in the sciences, the Learning Assistant (LA) program swayed me from pursuing a medical career to a teaching career. The program organically exposes LAs to the ways that students process fundamental ideas in physics. Through daily classroom interaction with students, an LA preparation session, and a pedagogy course for LAs (including quarterly clinical interviews with non-physics students), the program teaches LAs to creatively assess what students already know when they approach their physics education.

LAs learn to observe, marvel at, and facilitate real-time productive cognitive processes in which students engage during interactive instruction. Viewing instruction through this lens helped me learn more deeply about both learning and physics itself. The intrigue I experienced diverted me from a career in medical diagnosis to one discerning the dynamic relationship between students and concepts, and the tactics teachers use to influence that relationship.

Discovering Cognitive Resources in Students Teaches LAs About Genuine Dialogue
Michael A. Willcockson, Hunter G. Close, Rachel E. Scherr

At SPU, undergraduate physics students practice teaching through the Learning Assistant (LA) program, which includes interviewing non-physics students about some basic physical phenomena. As an LA, the results were startling to me: without being taught, the interviewees were pre-loaded with some pieces of physics understanding. As an LA I learned that physics is achievable not because the concepts are simple but because students are clever (i.e., willing and able to think innovatively about a life of physics experience).

My new-found appreciation for student thinking changed the way I teach and the way I communicate generally. As I encouraged students to engage tasks, I found that they knew more than I thought and needed what I knew less than they thought. As a future medical student, this lesson has changed how I view interactions with patients. Valuing others’ ability to think is essential to productive communication, regardless of the profession.

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