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Metcalf Cup and Prize Winner: Andrew Duffy

Teaching physics with technology, a touch of Michelle Kwan

Andrew Duffy, Boston University Metcalf Cup and Prize winner 2012, College of Arts and Sciences physics

Physicist Andrew Duffy eschews traditional lecture styles to teach physics to his students. Photo by Vernon Doucette

What’s that going on in Andrew Duffy’s class? Is it a NASCAR demonstration? (Duffy’s been known to crash model cars for his students’ enlightenment.) Is it a Lost in Space marathon? (Now he’s shooting a laser through water.) Is it Disney on Ice? (There’s Duffy, holding some weights and talking about figure skaters while standing atop a twirling table.)

None of the above. What’s really going on is the kind of grab-you-by-the-lapels teaching that won this year’s Metcalf Cup and Prize, the University’s top teaching award. While someone peeking at the various classes described above might think Duffy had taken leave of his senses, the College of Arts & Sciences master lecturer in physics was actually explaining the concepts of momentum, total internal reflection, and centripetal force.

From self-developed videos to class votes on the correct answer to a problem to spinning on tables, Duffy deploys every unorthodox or interactive arrow in his quiver to demystify physics. There’s method to all this motion, he says: research shows “how ineffective the traditional lecture method of teaching is. Students learn and retain much more when they are actively engaged in the learning process.” In physics, that means, for example, talking to one another during a lecture, working out problems and clicking their answers to questions.

“Sometimes I ask a sequence of questions,” Duffy says, “and you can see the learning taking place in front of you, as the responses start with a close-to-random distribution of answers”; as the students gradually grasp the concept he’s teaching, “they progress to a large majority getting the right answer.”

“Dr. Duffy explicates the world around us with flair and insight, and provides the tools to improve physics education,” his Metcalf citation reads. Judging by their raves to the Metcalf selection committee, students agree. “He is the god of Physics,” wrote one, while another enthused, “Dr. Duffy is the best professor I have ever had.” A third described (aptly for a physics teacher) his “incredible energy.”

Duffy, who came to BU in 1995, says he was incredulous when President Robert A. Brown and Provost Jean Morrison first notified him that he had won the award. “As someone who cares deeply about teaching, winning the Metcalf has been a dream,” he says, “but it’s a rare occasion when a dream that big comes true.”

He cares so deeply that he evangelizes for better physics and physical science instruction for students before they ever make it to college. As principal investigator for the Physics Teacher Education Coalition, a collaboration of universities and the National Science Foundation, Duffy helps recruit and train future high school science teachers. He has taught science and physics to secondary school teachers and developed courses for them with colleague Peter Garik, a School of Education clinical associate professor.

The Metcalf awards, which are presented at Commencement, date to 1973 and are funded by a gift from the late Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74), a former BU professor and Board of Trustees chairman emeritus. The Metcalf Cup and Prize winner receives $10,000, the Metcalf Award winners $5,000 each. A University committee selects winners based on nominees’ statements of teaching philosophy, supporting letters from colleagues and students, and classroom observations of the teachers. This year’s Metcalf Award winners are Robert C. Lowe, a School of Medicine associate professor of gastroenterology, and Marisa Milanese, a College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program senior lecturer.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

3 Comments on Metcalf Cup and Prize Winner: Andrew Duffy

  • N.C. on 05.10.2012 at 1:32 pm

    Professor Duffy always makes class entertaining and no two classes are ever the same. The way he teaches makes concepts memorable, and that’s important because it allows us to learn the material well. Never thought physics could be so dynamic. He truly loves to teach, and it definitely makes a difference in how students learn! Thank you professor! CONGRATULATIONS, you deserve it.

  • Matt Ford on 05.12.2012 at 7:17 am

    I had Prof. Duffy 10 years ago and he was a brilliant educator back then. The selection committee got this one right. Congrats to Prof. Duffy.

  • G-Wiz on 09.15.2012 at 8:00 pm

    He is one of the best professors I have ever had the privilege of being in contact with.
    He fully deserves this and more. Keep doing your thing Dr. Duffy!

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