I was on a panel a few days ago on “Teaching at a Research University,” part of a teaching workshop here at the University of Oregon. This is a large topic that impacts both students and faculty. On the student side there’s the question, pointed out in introductory remarks by our Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies, of “Why be a student at a major research university?” There are lots of answers, ranging from prestige to possibly better courses (?) to greater opportunities for learning outside the classroom. The last point is perhaps the most important. UO really sells this, writing on brochures and web pages that “80.5%” of undergraduates participate in a “research project, creative activity, or research paper.” This is a ridiculous number that includes research within coursework (e.g. a term paper). This should be 100% even at a non-research university. Thankfully, the meaninglessness of this 80.5% number was pointed out at the workshop itself. Apparently, 25 to 30% of UO students participate in an “intensive, mentored research experience outside the classroom.” That’s an impressive number. In the sciences I hope it’s higher — every physics major, I would argue, should be involved in research.
Incorporating my research into my courses
My assignment on the panel was however not to ponder grand policies, but to more specifically give examples of how I have incorporated my own research into my courses. I picked examples from two non-science-major courses that I’ve taught several times. I only roughly sketched beforehand what I would say, but I decided to write down some of this afterwards, using the blog to preserve things that I might point to later.
The Physics of Life. The easy example is my “biophysics for non-science-majors” course, The Physics of Life. As noted in another post, I created this course a few years ago, introducing and elaborating the theme that physical forces and mechanisms guide how life works. This is the principle underlying biophysics, including my lab’s work, so it would be odd if I didn’t incorporate my research into this course! We discuss, unrelated to my work, things like large-scale biomechanics, for example, why large animals need disproportionately thick leg bones compared to small animals, a consequence of forces of gravity and aspects of beam strength. At vastly different scales, things like swimming bacteria also care about physics — the viscous forces that resist their movement, the randomizing activity of Brownian motion, etc. My lab studies gut bacteria, and we watch them swim, aggregate, and interact inside the guts of zebrafish. I show movies of this in class and discuss the motivations of our work.
This gets to a key point related to a major aim of all non-science-major courses, conveying how science works. I stress that often the most important, and most challenging, task is figuring out what questions to ask, which guides everything that follows This is a very unfamiliar idea for students, who typically have a naive view of science as a fact-collecting activity. Also in this course, we examine how contemporary research, including my own, often exists at the boundary between traditional fields. I also describe how I got into biophysics. I bring a lot of research work into the course, mine and (especially) others’, including for example graphs from papers that students learn to read. Overall, this is a course for which my, and the university’s, being research-focused is central to the nature of the class, and I think this helps make the course successful.
This is news to a majority of students — they really have no idea what the job of a professor is.
Physics of Energy and the Environment. The difficult example is the Physics of Energy and the Environment course for non-science majors that I’ve taught several times (and blogged about several times). Though I’m very interested in energy and the environment, these topics are not at all related to my research. Nonetheless, I bring up what I study, briefly, for several reasons. At some point, usually in week 2 or 3, I ask “Who is Prof. Parthasarathy?” I describe my background, one of the main motivations simply being that students (and all people) connect better with people they know something about, and a lot of teaching involves asking students to trust one’s decisions about course structure and assignments.
I also point out that as a science professor at a research university, the majority of my time is not spent working on courses, but rather on research — working with students (undergraduate and graduate) in the lab, designing experiments, writing grant proposals, etc. This is news to a majority of students — they really have no idea what the job of a professor is. I also describe my group, especially that it’s composed mostly of students, graduate and undergraduate, from many different backgrounds.
Despite the dissimilarity of my research from the topic of the course, at one or two points in the term I show examples from my lab that highlight the universality of physics. For example, we learn about forces, especially related to the energy needs of forms of transportation; I show measurements of membrane deformation, which similarly bring up relationships between forces and velocities. These sorts of things also set up the idea of experiments, data, and tests as being how we learn about the world using science. Especially getting to the climate part of the course, this is important — we’ve figured out how climate works by, for example, lab experiments quantifying carbon dioxide’s absorption of infrared light.
There were a handful of interesting questions, but not time for a long discussion. Overall, I think it’s not hard to incorporate research into our courses, and it helps our educational aims.
An alpha helix, a draft of another helix illustration I made.