Physics professors applauded for active, tech-savvy teaching

Four Boston University physics professors won an inaugural award Monday for incorporating technology to improve students’ learning experiences and equipping them with skills essential to succeed as 21st century scholars and professionals.

The Office of the Provost, in coordination with the Center for Excellence & Innovation in Teaching, selected College of Arts & Sciences physics professor Bennett Goldberg, assistant professor Pankaj Mehta, master lecturer Andrew Duffy and lecturer Manher Jariwala to receive the Gerald and Deanne Gitner Family Award for Innovation in Teaching with Technology and a $10,000 prize.

“We were enormously impressed by the caliber and depth of the Physics team’s innovation and with its potential as a model for other educators,” said Provost Jean Morrison in a Wednesday email sent to the entire university.

CEIT Director and School of Management professor Janelle Heineke commended the Gitner Award recipients for their multifaceted approach to creating an active learning environment for BU students.

“Passive lecturing can work but it also involves sort of an inefficient way of transferring facts from one head into another person’s head,” she said. “This way the classroom is essentially flipped.”

Heineke said it was important to recognize BU faculty members who are incorporating technology to enhance students’ education.

“Technology is increasingly an important part of how we live, and certainly we can bring a lot of technology into the way we teach to improve the teaching and the experience for the students,” she said.

Mehta said the physics team’s goal was to implement an “inverted learning” teaching method in the BU Physics Studio Classroom, in which students prepare for class ahead of time with online materials to minimize time spent lecturing in class.

The learning style features round tables in which small groups discuss and work on problems using computer simulations, he said.

“Students are much more enthusiastic and prefer this model much more to lecture where it’s passive, and certainly there’s a lot of educational research showing this is a more effective way of teaching,” Mehta said. “If you think about how scientists learn or how any researcher learns, you learn by doing. You don’t learn by listening.”

He said he and the team were grateful to receive the Gitner Award and excited for the future of the learning technique they are developing.

“We think it’s a great way to teach. It represents the future of what we hope these large classes become,” Mehta said. “One of the main things we’re excited about is that maybe this will spur other people to look into this kind of studio teaching and make an effort to implement it.”

Duffy said technology benefits a class when it supports an active learning environment.

“There are many ways that technology adds value to teaching and learning, ranging from providing feedback to instructors, just before class and during class, about what students are getting and what they’re struggling with, to promoting interaction between students, and between students and course staff,” Duffy said.

Some students in the Physics Studio Classroom said they preferred the interactive learning process using technology to a traditional, lecturing style.

Catherine Cattley, a junior in Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, said the use of clickers – which allow students to answer questions anonymously and electronically – helps foster participation in class.

“It’s easier to participate in class when you feel less self-conscious using the technology. I would not typically be the type of kid to raise my hand in class,” she said. “If you can click in your answer, then it helps a lot, so it helps you get more engaged.”

CAS junior Brian Wiederhold said the round table group discussions among students help resolve questions about the material.

“If you don’t understand something the professor is saying you can ask someone right next to you,” he said. “They use it [technology] in a way to make you understand it deeper, not just on the surface. I think that helps.”

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