April 21, 2017

Murphy Award: Erica Carlson

Erica Carlson Erica Carlson, professor of physics. (Purdue University photo/John Underwood) Download image

Five teachers have received the 2017 Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award in Memory of Charles B. Murphy. This week, Purdue Today will feature Q&A's on each of the recipients. This Q&A focuses on Erica Carlson, professor of physics.

Years at Purdue: 14.

Teaching interests: I am interested in teaching all things physics! I especially enjoy quantum mechanics, and I’ll use any excuse to bring that into whatever course I’m currently teaching. What I love about physics is seeing the power of logic to make predictions about how the world actually works, starting from only a small amount of input knowledge.

Goals as a professor: Ultimately, we teach to empower human flourishing. Human flourishing requires freedom, which is one reason my husband and I are donating the award to the Run for Justice, to promote human freedom and help end slavery for good. I’ve had the privilege of working with so many wonderful young people here at Purdue. I know that they’re having an impact for good, all around the world. I’ve been especially impressed by the work of Generation Justice at Purdue -- they work hard to end human trafficking, and they’ve been a big supporter of the Run for Justice.

On what makes an engaging lecture: Learning is fun when you enjoy the topic. If I’m not excited about the material, why should you be? You’ve got to start with great content. Luckily, physics is one of the most beautiful subjects on Earth, so I’ve got great material to start with. One thing I try to do is be sure to start from where students already are. You know a lot of physics just from your everyday experience. I aim to tie new knowledge right into what you already know.

On using new technologies such as blogs, podcasts, supplemental YouTube videos and wikis to improve instruction: I do like technology -- I even ride a robot to work! I think it’s amazing what we humans can do when we combine our creativity with our understanding of the physical laws of the universe. To have a positive impact on the course, the technology needs to help students learn rather than distract or frustrate them. I’m constantly evaluating which of our technologies is helpful, which have become obsolete, and what we could do in the future. This year, I started a YouTube channel for Physics 272, Electric and Magnetic Interactions, so students have more ways to interact with the material.

Participating in the Success Through Transformative Education and Active Mentoring educational research project: STEAM is an educational research project led by Chantal Levesque-Bristol, director of Purdue's Center for Instructional Excellence, to examine active learning. I became involved in STEAM when I joined Purdue’s IMPACT program. IMPACT offers faculty a very pleasant (and incentivized) way to get up to speed on the latest in teaching innovations and research about how students learn, with the goal of empowering faculty to transform Purdue courses for the benefit of students and faculty.

Over the years, the Department of Physics and Astronomy has taken a lot of data about how our students learn best, especially in introductory courses. We continually use this data to make our courses better each year in order to maximize the benefit students get from the time they put in. Many introductory courses in math and science across the country are using online homework. Through our involvement in STEAM, we’re testing different ways students interact with online homework to find out how to maximize students’ benefit from the effort they put in.

What Carlson enjoys most about teaching: What I most enjoy about teaching is interacting with our amazing students. Purdue students and alumni are a global network, impacting the world for good. I also love those “a-ha!” moments when students understand something they didn’t before.

On outreach opportunities: I also enjoy outreach, and the challenge of communicating complex ideas to the general public in a way that’s correct and yet accessible. I recently gave a public lecture on quantum mechanics, which was a lot of fun! I used slinkies, dice, coins, and soft drink cans to illustrate some otherwise abstract concepts. I’m grateful to Purdue students for inviting me to give a talk at TEDxPurdue a couple of years ago on “Are You More Than Your Atoms?” I plan to do more popularizing about quantum mechanics and my own field of quantum materials. There are some really beautiful ideas in there that I think everyone can appreciate. The challenge is to communicate that beauty in plain English.

What Carlson's students say: She helped me to visualize concepts rather than to see everything in terms of a formula. I really enjoy how she creates a very inclusive environment. … She gives demonstrations and shows videos related to topics which makes the class very interactive and fun. … She takes the time to understand students' point of view and method of thinking.


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