PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Elizabeth McCormack

What works: Observations from the field

Liz McCormack

Liz McCormack is Professor of Physics at Bryn Mawr 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?

In our introductory physics lab they'd see students engaged in multiple, open-ended experiments designed to highlight the processes of the scientific enterprise as well as particular content. For example, in one part of the lab they might see three different kinds of pendulums being investigated, next to a pair of students exploring the physics of music, next to a pair looking at material crystal structures using the latest software, next to another pair measuring waves on a wire. Hopefully the impression they would take away would be one of curiosity and energy, and of course, community: people having fun together. They might also take note of the power of peer leaning that emerges from such a structured but open-ended set of diverse experiments taking place simultaneously.

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

I view the educational enterprise as one of helping people find their voice and passion--to encourage them to choose paths that are meaningful and that contribute to the lives of others. My role is to show them the field of inquiry called Physics and the ways it and science in general, connects to their lives. Whether it be from reading and discussing a text together, participating in research together or working together in a classroom or lab discovering what happens if, developing a student's capabilities and supporting her interests to do something meaningful with them is what it is about for me. I guess I believe in that pyramid model of society: the whole benefits from and is built upon the collective of its individuals.

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

In a field as small as physics and seemingly remote from human concerns, connecting the questions addressed in our field to how everyday things work and to the broad fundamental questions of what are we and where we come from is very important. A further challenge is how to respond to the societal factors that have restricted the participation of diverse groups in Physics, and in science in general. Seeing students transformed and pursuing their goals is the best incentive to keep at it.

What connections have been of most value in doing this?

By seeking to learn about and build on what others have discovered about what works to engage and motivate students in studying the sciences I have found allies in these endeavors and been greatly supported by a community with similar goals. It has helped me a great deal to see models that work and to have colleagues to talk with to help make sense of our efforts and find ways to improve them. The connections across the disciplines have been particularly valuable as a way to get out of the "group think" associated with a particular field that can hamper the adoption of new ideas.

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

There are fascinating balances and tensions in education--a whole class of which can be characterized by the different scales present in a college or university. For example, institutional and individual interests can be at odds or be synergistic in any given circumstances. A culture that tolerates and even rewards risk taking at both levels and that provides a framework for continuing to learn at both levels I think is key if institutions are to evolve themselves while meeting their missions.