Ateneo Physics alumnus and former faculty Dr. Francis Ian Vega II’s “Teaching Statement” in University of Florida, Gainesville

Dr. Michael Francis Ian Vega II

Dr. Michael Francis Ian Vega II

TEACHING STATEMENT

Dr. Francis Ian Vega II

Institute for Fundamental Theory, Department of Physics, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, USA

Dr. Vega finished his B.S. in Physics (2001) in Ateneo de Manila University, under the supervision of Dr. Jerrold Garcia.  Dr. Vega then taught at Ateneo for a few years.  Afterwards, he left for University of Florida (Gainesville) and earned his Ph.D. in Physics (2009).  He is now a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Physics, University of Guelph, Canada.

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” -Plutarch

There is no such thing as a natural-born teacher. In large part, a good teacher is invariably the product of others’ good teaching and hard work. Whether I am one remains to be seen, but whatever good I do in the classroom is the indelible mark of the excellence of other teachers who generously invested their time in me. One has to look to them to see the kind of teaching I continually aspire to give.

One does not become a good teacher without at the same time being a really devoted student. The best teachers are always ones who exude genuine excitement about their subject, and are themselves personally engaged in gaining a better understanding of the world around us. As a teacher, I constantly try to surprise myself with new ideas. I find that this not only freshens up my perspective, but also reminds me that what I try to share with my students really is such a fantastic thing. This feeds a passion that is often infectious, especially in the classroom; and it dresses the classes I teach with a certain attitude about them, a personal perspective not to be found from merely reading textbooks. Time and again, it is expressed that technology will eventually rescind the need for classroom instruction. However, this betrays the oft-held misconception that what goes on in the classroom is merely the transmission of knowledge. A good class really does more than that. To me, there is still no substitute for the proverbial “professor”, that living embodiment of a life-long learner whose passion brings ideas to life out of the graveyard of abstraction, and whose role is to inspire and not to spoonfeed. I try to fill that role as best as I can.

Passion goes nowhere though without conceptual clarity, most especially for a subject like physics. As such, I am a big fan of establishing and reiterating connections, of trying to make students see how new physics ideas fit into the greater tapestry of things. Tragically, this seems lost in most introductory physics texts, which in effect paints the subject as a disjointed set of formulas and demonstrations, rather than the elegant description of the universe that it is. Emphasizing connections entails involving more theoretical baggage than most students initially and tasteful. But they soon realize that physics is better done (and more fun!) when one sees the larger picture. Problem-solving plays a key role in this, as problems are what flesh out physical ideas. Students are incapable of appreciating how one physical idea meshes with

the next one unless they truly understand what that concept is in the first place.  In problem-solving, one must try to be as thorough and coherent as one possibly can, in order to thereby avoid being no better than a glorified solutions manual. A difficult step in attacking a physics problem is often the jump from the physical scenario to the mathematical structures that physics uses to represent them. For instance, “A ball is dropped…” gets mapped into \mathbf v_i = 0 and \mathbf a = -g\hat j.   I always
try to stress this aspect of the thought process, which can easily be lost in the resulting clutter of symbols and equations. With problems, it is important to refrain from drowning the students in mathematical detail; and where the gory calculation is unavoidable, to present it in its most digestible form. One needs to disentangle the parts of the gibberish on the board containing the essential physics from the parts which are just routine algebra. Finally, it is important to aim for active participation, because physics will never be a spectator sport. One needs to solve problems with the students rather than just for them.

Through all this, I try never to lose sight of what’s important, and not to play with equations just for the sake of doing so. The problems are meant to inform and elucidate our understanding of the physical universe, and to gradually reveal the elegance of its underlying order, which at the end of the day should ultimately captivate the most attentive of students. It is important to impress upon them the sense that physics, while being the basis of many wonderful technologies driving our current way of life, is more importantly humanity’s best means for capturing the world and for apprehending its apparent arbitrariness. The result is a view of the universe that is nothing short of breathtaking.

To be able to catch mere glimpses of this is what has kept me going as a student of physics to this day. And that I should play a role in helping others partake in this same experience, nudging them to their own paths of discovery, is surely the most gratifying bonus to this job.

Source: University of Florida website.

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Physics News and Features from Ateneo de Manila University

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