Essay 1 – Teaching

I am filling out my CV for my promotion casebook (associate professor to professor) and we have to write 3 essays on teaching, research and service.  I decided that I would share these essays with the world.  Here is the first of the three:


When I started at UM, I was a research scientist and was relatively happy working with undergrad- uates and graduate students as research assistants. In 2004, at a faculty meeting, I suggested that we teach our graduate students to understand data processing. The faculty suggested that I develop a two-week class on this and co-teach the “Space Instrumentation” class, where I would learn how to teach from the professor and would teach this small section of the class. It turned out that the main professor in the class did not really show up, so I ended up teaching the class mostly by myself. Before this, I had (a) never taught a class at UM before and (b) never knew anything about instrumentation. The class ended up being a success and I was asked to teach the undergraduate version of it the next year. I took some of the material from the past professors, but developed a lot more of the material, focusing on having the student build and utilize instruments instead of having the majority of the time in the classroom. I ended up taking the graduate level “Space Instrumentation” class and making it into a design-build-test-deploy class focused on upper atmospheric balloons.

The high-altitude balloons started off with three students building a small tracking device that we put in a lunch box and launched. The following year, I had four teams of five students. The main goal of the class is to provide the student an opportunity to take their design experience and actually build something. They often discover that: (a) the design and the built project have little to do with each other, (b) building something that can survive in a harsh environment is quite difficult, (c) it is hard to integrate a bunch of different components into a single working system, and (d) sticking to a schedule is very hard. The students are learning new skills by doing a project.

For the undergraduate level class, I attempted to fold in some of these same traits, but I don’t think that it was nearly as successful. One of the things that I attempted was to link together the undergraduate and graduate classes by having the undergrads build a small instrument to be launched on the balloon. This did not work well at all because of lack of communication from all sides. The student really did not want to work across the graduation boundary. It was definitely a learning experience for me.

In 2007 I was asked to substitute teach the “Extreme Weather” class, which is over 100 non-science students. I did this and learned a great deal about teaching large classes and the weather (not having ever taken a class on the weather before). In 2008, Professor Paul Drake, along with a graduate student (Anna DeJong), developed a “Rocket Science 101” class that they taught in the spring semester. I was asked to teach this class in the Fall semester. When I asked for the material for the class, there were a few power-point slides that did not contain very much information on them and a list of topics that were covered. I ended up redeveloping the class, focusing on the history and physics of the subject. I taught the class in a very different way than I had done lectures before. Namely, I knew that there were many students who were quite fearful of the math and were much more interested in the history, while there were other students who were exactly the opposite. (The class is typically evenly split between all grade levels and evenly split between Literature Science and Arts and engineering students.) I therefore teach history on Mondays, physics on Wednesdays and fun things about science on Fridays. I have learned that this keeps the students engaged and wanting to learn. I would say that the Rocket science class is extremely successful.

Finally, I would like to discuss my general philosophy of teaching. My wife and I home-schooled our children for many years. One of the things that I learned from this is that students are extremely capable of learning on their own. Teachers should act more as guides and directors instead of lecturers. There are many subjects in which you could argue that this is not true (math and science being two), but I would argue that, even in those cases, students are quite capable of researching how to solve problems. Teachers are there to guide students to resources that can help them solve the problems that life throws them. That way the students learn how to learn.


About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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