A River Never Truly Flows in One Direction, Reflections on a Chancellors Undergraduate Teaching Fellowship

Teaching, much like learning, is a process that takes time and iteration, adjustment and patience. It’s about developing tools and implementing them only to find that the tools themselves need to be adjusted. Sometimes the goal isn’t even the completion of the task, or even conveying a message, but rather developing a method for how to approach challenges that are always fluctuating; always changing. Prior to having the opportunity to develop teaching materials myself through the Chancellors Undergraduate Teaching Fellowship (CUTF), I had no direct experience with developing methods by which to teach. I had worked as a tutor and had spent time helping friends and classmates understand complex topics in STEM classes, but I had never created actual assignments or given real lectures. I was ignorant of the complexities that were underneath the surface, waiting to be discovered, and this opportunity handed me a tank of air and a mask by which I could begin to explore the treasures that awaited me.

At the beginning of my first semester as a second-year student in the Engineering Science department of the Swanson School of Engineering, I was assigned the task of deriving a formula for the mean free path of a molecule in an ideal gas. This distance is the average distance that a molecule will travel before colliding with another and (quite likely) changing the direction of its motion. I was already aware of the concept of drift velocity, whereby the electrons that travel through a wire do so at a speed that takes into account each of these collisions and path adjustments, and considers that, on average, each electron moves through the wire in a specified direction (designated, of course, by the potential difference applied) with a certain, measurable, speed. I suppose you could say that I understood that water flows downhill, but what I learned was that the water truly swirls around in complex patterns in the process of making its way downstream.

Much like this discovery, I had the opportunity, though the CUTF, to write down and clearly define learning objectives, places I hoped the students would make their way to if only I could create a potential difference and allow them to flow like water downstream. If only I could design assignments that would lead to an understanding of a concept or methodology; slowly building upon the knowledge they had and adding new pieces to bring them to a more comprehensive understanding. The most valuable lesson I learned through this process was that it wasn’t this collective motion that was the most important; it was measurable and clearly defined and most certainly the framework by which my work in teaching took place, but it wasn’t anywhere near as important as the collisions that occurred along the way.

This semester, I held office hours weekly and I also often attended the office hours of my fellow teaching assistants. In these spaces, I had the opportunity to collide with the minds of the students I was teaching, and I learned from them much like they learned from me. Sometimes I picked up a new technique or methodology, a new way to look at a problem or perhaps a new way to delve deeper into the concepts that I believed I already knew quite well. The questions that were asked of me sometimes had me take a step back and consider how I might communicate with each different type of person, and, from that, I learned that knowing how to solve problems is often not as important as being able to communicate about the pathway that one might take to find a solution.

I designed assignments and I learned that what I might consider “easy” once I’ve put in a tremendous amount of work to understand something is not always “easy” for someone else to understand right off the bat. I learned that it’s important to create clear pathways, to lead students to a method that they can use to solve complex problems, while also allowing for freedom of thought and creativity by ensuring that not every piece is always perfectly aligned. I also learned that each of these things is easy to say, but they were certainly challenging to learn. It was a process that took a semester and allowed me a glimpse at what a potential career in academia might look like, and that is a future I am happily and hopefully moving towards.

I cannot say with certainty what my future holds (though, despite only being a second-year student, I am currently considering what types of PhD programs I might be interested in). What I can say is that I spent this semester learning both in and out of the classroom, while I began developing my own method for helping others learn as well. I gained a more comprehensive knowledge of the topics I helped to convey to others. I learned more from my interactions with the students in this class than I ever could have imagined. I had clearly defined goals, for myself and for the students in the class, and I reached most of them (and quite a few I didn’t know I had when I began), but I also found that it was far more rewarding to be open to change and challenge, to be able to adjust to an ever-fluctuating environment, and that fluidity in teaching, and in learning, allowed me to appreciate each collision, and change of course, along the way.

Heather Phillips Giving Lecture

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