PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

David Statman

What works: Observations from the field

David Statman

David Statman is Professor of Physics and Chemistry at Allegheny College.

Faculty for the 21st Century members reflect on their experience in making a difference for their students and for the communities of which they are a part.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab—the environment in which you work with students—what impression would s/he leave with?

The classroom consists of five round tables, five blackboards around the room, a receiver for PRS clickers, a projection system for PowerPoint, DVD, whatever, and ten laptop computers (two for each table). If the visitor was a student fifteen years ago or more, her response would be “that’s not anything like the way I learned physics (or chemistry)!” After watching a brief PowerPoint presentation covering the main points, laced with two-minute questions answered using PRS clickers, the students would turn to their teams to work on, discuss, and debate, a particular set of questions. They would be working at the blackboards. I would be walking around, eavesdropping, and making cryptic statements. The first impression is total chaos and confusion. But stick around. Towards the end of the 75- minute session, the visitor would see quite a few satisfied students feeling as if they knew something they did not know 75-minutes prior. Even more interesting, the observer might feel that way, as well.

What brought you to an interest in “advancing the frontiers of education” and to connecting your research to that work?

Several things, of equal importance:

  • In the 1974-75 academic year, I took physics with Mary Fehrs at Lafayette College. The laboratories were open-ended, where we had to come up with questions and a means to answer those questions. Even though I was a chemistry student at the time, I considered that the best science course I had ever taken. I felt as though I had learned science, and not just a bunch of rules or equations to solve. This was my first exposure to inquiry-based teaching methods (note the year – 1974). Way back then, I understood that just like following recipes from a cookbook does not make one a chef, following recipes from a lab manual does not make one a scientist.
  • In 1978, as I was preparing for my oral exams in graduate school (the subject being polymer physics), I had a visiting professor from Japan give me a mock oral exam. At one point he asked me a question, to which I responded by writing an equation on the board. He looked at me and said “wrong.” I respectfully disagreed with him, and proceeded to look for a reference to indicate that I was, in fact, correct. Stopping me, he said, “I did not ask you for an equation. I asked you what that equation tells us about the polymers. What are they doing?” At that moment I understood that physics and chemistry are not applied mathematics. Rather, physics and chemistry are described by words and pictures, with the mathematics being just the skeleton, upon which the rest of the body is supported.
  • I think it was 2000 or 2001 that I became involved with PKAL and F21. I found that I was not the only one who was troubled with the state of science education. But there I found people looking for and finding answers, “what works.” I was exposed to new ideas about pedagogy and learning that dealt with student-centered learning and research-oriented curricula.

These three things coalesced together to in my mind tugging at the lack of ease I had teaching in the traditional mode, in spite of the fact that I was considered an outstanding lecturer by my students. Does that answer the question?

Were there crises in doing this? What made you persevere?

The semester before I came up for tenure at Allegheny College, I tried to incorporate “peer instruction” in my Physical Chemistry class. It did not go over well. The students’ expectations were that I should lecture and show them at the board how to solve the problems. My evaluations hit rock bottom. At Allegheny, student evaluations are critical in determining whether a person gets tenure. In my self-evaluation, I discussed the experience, and the evaluations, and indicated the steps I would take towards improvement, refusing to give up on student-centered pedagogies. The Chemistry Department, and the faculty review committee congratulated me on being willing to take a chance and risk tenure for the sake of improving education. Two years later I was promoted to Full Professor, and two years after that I was made Chair of the Physics Dept. What made me persevere? Support of my colleagues. I think that it is critical that we let untenured faculty know and understand that taking risks for the purpose of improving education is a good thing and will not be punished.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and teaching?

A good mentoring system and support structure, with a culture that allows for some risk taking.