Wednesday, December 6, 2023

My Fall Mechanics Class - thanks for the escape!

Oftentimes, as the end of year draws near, I take a moment to reflect on its high points.  For me, there were several, most notably, the publication of my first book (Getting Physics: Nature's Laws as a Guide to Life, link on the right side of the page, makes a great Christmas gift, wink wink).  But, this year has been a rough one for me, particularly the past couple of months, for many reasons I will not elaborate on, but if I must list a theme, let's go with 'targeted attacks on minority communities'.

Of course, I am not alone.  In these difficult moments, we need to try extra hard to be in the moment, and escape the weight of this general malaise.  The classroom is a setting that can offer such an escape.  Many students feel that the classroom is a place they would like to escape from, but consider this...

Many years ago, a student of mine was in crisis.  I could see on their face that something was not right, and we had a chat.  They said something that stuck with me: "The classroom is an escape, a brief respite from my troubles."  I totally get that, particularly with physics, because physics does not care about the day we are having or whether there is peace in the Middle East.  The laws of nature exist outside and above all of our troubles.

In a recent bout with COVID, I was watching too much Netflix, as one does (mostly movies I have already seen cause that's how I roll).  I rewatched Jurassic World.  There are two brothers who enter a theme park with dinosaurs.  One's glee boils over, while the other stares at his phone.  How can one not be completely in awe?  That is how I feel when students get bored in physics class... Not that they all do, but of course, some do.  Maybe most do some of the time?  How can I know for sure?

At the front of the class, I get immersed in physics, and I get to spend time with a fun bunch of young adults.  I get to escape things that exist outside the classroom.  I want all of my students to experience the same feeling.  I have spent my whole career figuring out how to do that while also maximizing their academic growth - and I still have much to learn.

Normally, I say goodbye to my students at the end of the year and inherit new groups in the Winter semester, and try again.  But for my Mechanics class, there was a last-minute reshuffling, and no one could take this group of honours students of mine for their next course (Waves, Optics, and Modern Physics).  In the shuffle, the course fell to me.  

I now have this opportunity (has only happened twice before in my career) to teach the same body of students another course.  I hope they will be happy to hear this news.  My take on it, in general, is that it should be avoided.  Students should see a discipline from many angles.  Also, too much familiarity can be a problem.  For example, students might think it is okay to break lab equipment cause "He's a nice guy, and he knows us," etc.  Anyway, as I said, they are a fun bunch of young adults and I look forward to trying again.  A second chance to get to know the Universe and escape our Earthly troubles in the process.