Engineering Intuition, a Chancellors Undergraduate Teaching Fellowship for PHYS 0476

Our world contains many forces that we can feel – but we can’t see. Gravity is a good example because there isn’t anything that we can visually perceive to be holding us down and yet we remain on the earth due to the force of gravity. We do have the ability to view and perceive gravity: throw a ball in the air and watch as it arcs back down to earth. We can measure how fast the ball moves and, knowing the mass (or inherent gravitational ability to attract other objects) of the earth, we can determine the mass of the ball. Other forces are a bit more mysterious. For instance, the earth also has a magnetic force field that surrounds it, and the force fields of electricity and magnetism are around us every day. Understanding how they interact is certainly far more challenging than watching a ball as it soars to the sky and then back to earth.

The goal of my fellowship is to assist in the development of an intuitive understanding of these conceptually confusing forces for the students in PHYS 0476, Introduction to Physics for Scientists and Engineers 2. I am working alongside Dr. Hong this semester where I aim to develop a minimum of one lecture and one lab, and I’m also hosting office hours where I get the opportunity to work directly with the students on homework assignments when they have questions.

This project began last year, when I was taking the class myself. Midway through the semester, each student in the class was provided with a take-home lab kit, and I tinkered a little bit with the different components of the kit and with the Arduino code to see what I could put together, both to assist in my own understanding of the complex topics that were being introduced and because it was fun to explore and play around a little bit with the material. I talked with Dr. Hong about ideas that I had to build interesting devices, such as a Tesla Coil or an EMF detector, and create lab materials around their development. Upon completion of the class, Dr. Hong reached out and asked if I would be interested in doing the Chancellors Undergraduate Teaching Fellowship.

I believe that exploring the concepts that are introduced in a course, beyond the framework of the course itself, allows students to understand the material far more comprehensively. One of my goals is to develop fun projects that allow students to do just that. With that said, my primary focus during this fellowship will be on producing measurable deliverables, including the development of one short lecture, and the redesigning of a lab that was initially offered as an extra-credit assignment. My other ideas will require hard work and dedication and in the best-case scenario may result in extra-credit assignments that future fellows may someday work to refine.

I’ve just entered the prototyping phase of my project and the image below shows a very rough draft of a potential lab that would be done in the Mathematica software offered for free to Pitt students. The featured image for this blog post is from a lab I completed myself when I took this class last year.

My name is Heather Phillips, and I am an Undergraduate Chancellors Teaching Fellow this Spring 2022 semester. I am a second-year student studying Nanotechnology in the Engineering Science department through the Swanson School of Engineering. I am also pursuing a Physics minor, and a Sustainability certificate. I’m hoping to enter the field of academia upon completion of my undergraduate degree, and I would eventually like to teach my own class(es) while pursuing research. I enjoy hiking, photography, reading, and the MCU.

In all honesty, receiving this fellowship and beginning to learn how to teach has already been an extraordinary experience while simultaneously being quite intimidating. My biggest challenge, so far, was in figuring out where and how to start, when I began to consider actually creating materials. I reached out to Dr. Hong, to Quincy Bayer, the teaching fellow from last year when I took the class, and to other professors at Pitt that I have enjoyed learning from. I also reached out to my aunt, who worked as a teacher for many years before retiring. Each of them offered different advice and a unique perspective about the challenges I have in front of me, but there was one common thread. Each of them instilled in me the confidence that if I put my mind to it and put in the hard work that is required, I can succeed. That, above all, is what I would like to pass along.

No matter how hard a challenge may seem, or how much more successful everyone around you might appear, you are absolutely capable. Never give up. Do your best to allow yourself the grace to make mistakes and to learn. We all struggle sometimes, and college is, especially, a time to struggle. To face challenges, to do the work, and to grow. You have the capacity to do great things. Just like the invisible force fields of electricity and magnetism, you might not always be able to see it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not there.

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