Teaching Approach

Effective teaching is very important to me. My goal in the classroom is to create an environment in which knowledge is constructed by students more than it is presented by me. Said differently, I have found that an effective way “to teach science” is simply to do science in the classroom, with my role being mostly a coach. As an example of what I mean, think of how coffee in an insulated mug without a lid cools to the overlying air. To explain this problem in a class it is easy to envisage a series of lectures that would break the issue of how hot coffee cools down into the main components of the science of thermal convection. However, no matter how brilliant my explanations might be, it is infinitely more engaging and inspiring to simply place a drop of cream in the coffee and study how the motions driven by the surface cooling disperse the cream, and hence distribute the cooling over the full depth of the coffee. To illustrate my approach more formally, in the classroom we (the students and me) begin an analysis of the cup of coffee as a team. The first step is to describe in detail everything we can observe about the cup, the coffee, and the drop of cream. Next, we formulate questions aimed at deciphering the driving dynamics of the cooling problem. These questions lead, in turn, to further inquiries about the physics of the problem that could take us first to textbooks and then to research articles. Following a careful study of the physics of the problem we would formulate hypotheses designed to unravel in a clear way precisely how the coffee cools. To test these hypotheses we would develop a list of good experiments to do and then we would do them. At the end of this study the students would have learned the significance of the scientific method, how to formulate and solve problems and, ultimately, how to construct knowledge in small and careful increments—i.e. learn.


Courses I teach

(Berkeley) EPS 104 An Introduction to Mathematical Methods in Geophysics
(Berkeley) EPS 238 Solidification and Chemical Differentiation of Basaltic Magma Chambers

(U. Toronto) PHYS 280 Fundamentals of Physics II (Vibrations and Waves)

(U.Toronto) PHYS 225 Second Year Lab

(U.Toronto) PHYS 2601 Special Topics in Planetary Physics

EOSC 212 Hot Topics in Earth and Planetary Science (with Michael Bostock) (2007)

EOSC 252 Introduction to Experimental Geophysics (Assignments, 2009)

EOSC 450 Potential Fields in the Earth and Planetary Sciences (2005)

EOSC 453 Advanced Physics of the Earth and Planets

EOSC 514 Introduction to Geological Fluid Mechanics

EOSC 212 Topics in Earth and Planetary Sciences


Some other educational efforts ...

The Earth: Kinda like a Mai Tai? Lessons about natural convection learned
from a few cocktails (A fun poster from Fall AGU, 2005 that you can download (4 Mb) ).

See also comments about this poster by Kenneth Chang from the New York Times.