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Nicole Ackerman | SLAC | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

Teaching!

After 2 weeks, I can decidedly say that I enjoy teaching. While this is somewhat due to the particular students, material, and people I’m working with, I think I will enjoy future teaching opportunities as well. This is quite refreshing – having a career in academic research usually means being a professor, which usually means teaching. Had I not enjoyed teaching, I would have had to do an uncomfortable re-evaluation of my career choice!

I’m teaching a freshman lab class for physics majors. There is one hour-long lecture a week where the students are introduced to the data analysis tools (ie, statistics) they will need for the lab and some of the physical principles the lab studies. The students have a 2 hour lab section where they work in a group of 2 or 3 on the lab. There are enough students to require 3 sections – since there are only 2 TA’s, we each have one section and we alternate for the third.

I’m enjoying this experience for many of the common reasons. Since this is a class for physics majors, many of the students seem to be excited about the material. They ask questions that show they are really thinking about the concepts – there have been a few that I had to stop to think about, or I had to backtrack on an answer when I realized I hadn’t thought deeply enough about it. It’s neat to see their though process work, to watch them progress towards the ‘Eureka’ moment. It is something one is unable to appreciate as the student – it just feels frustrating!

I’m also enjoying TA’ing this class for the independence I feel – which is not something I think I’ve heard others say about teaching. Since the lecture time is so short, I begin each lab with some discussion of the physics of the lab and the statistics. The labs often use principles from other physics topics that not all of the students are familiar with, so I get to figure out how to quickly teach them a concept, often in a pragmatic conceptual way, rather than spending an hour deriving it from first principles. While there is some fear they will ask a question I won’t be able to answer, I also have a feeling of pride and competence. 5 years ago I was (more or less) in their shoes. I would have been seeing these devices and concepts for the first time. Now, I can explain these things and appreciate the freshman curriculum within in the bigger picture of the material they will study for the next 3-5 years (including graduate classes).

It is reassuring to see that I can fulfill this role – it makes me more optimistic I can lecture to a class of 100 and possibly teach a few of them something. It’s exciting to realize I can introduce the students to something that will be new and interesting to them since they’re freshman, rather than the jaded graduate students I normally interact with. I hope that they are enjoying the class as much as I am (after all, it is pass/fail) and that I’m doing a good job. We get teaching evaluations, so I will find out what they think. I’m sure I’ll be sad about some of the feedback (I’ve had friends get comments along the lines of “you’re not as funny as your think you are”) but I hope that I can use it to be a better teacher in the future. After all, I’ll have at least 2 more classes to TA while at Stanford!

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