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CAS Physics Team Wins First Gitner Award

Honor recognizes technologically innovative teaching

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Andrew Duffy has been known to stand astride spinning tables, fire lasers, and crash model cars in class, all to engage his students with more interactive instruction than the traditional lecture.

Now he and fellow College of Arts & Sciences physics faculty—Bennett Goldberg, a physics professor and a College of Engineering biomedical engineering professor, Pankaj Mehta, a physics assistant professor, and Manher Jariwala, a physics lecturer—have earned a newly created prize recognizing innovative, tech-based instruction.

The Gerald and Deanne Gitner Family Innovation in Teaching with Technology Award will be given annually to a faculty member or team that best demonstrates “use, development, or adaptation of technology,” according to the announcement of the first winners by Provost Jean Morrison and Janelle Heineke (GSM’92), director of the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching and a School of Management professor and chair of operations and technology management. The technology use must be shown to improve undergraduate learning and be recognized or adopted by BU or other faculties.

Duffy, a master lecturer and a winner of the University’s highest teaching prize, the Metcalf Cup and Prize, credits his team’s selection for the $10,000 Gitner prize to the physics department’s support staff, University administration, and in particular, the Gitner family, who have endowed the award. Gerald Gitner (CAS’66) is a former executive with Transworld Airlines, now part of American Airlines. “There are a lot of people across the University who are working hard on pedagogical innovations, and it’s terrific to have an award to recognize these efforts,” says Duffy. “The award should also help drive new innovations in teaching.”

“So much of what the Gitner Award celebrates is the ability to engage students and to spark discovery in entirely new ways,” Morrison says. “This year’s inaugural nominees, while distinctive in the subject matter and methodologies they bring to their teaching, were bonded by a shared energy and passion for exploring new frontiers in the creation and transmission of knowledge.”

The winners’ project, Transforming Physics Teaching and Learning Through Technology, has roots going back to the Clinton era, says Duffy. “We were among the first at BU to try clickers in the classroom to respond to questions and to make use of online homework…in the late 1990s.” More recently, he and his colleagues have coupled those technologies with others—simulations of lessons, online preclass quizzes, and the Piazza online discussion forum for students needing help outside of class.

“This year, all of the many innovations we’ve brought in over the years came together in the new Interactive Studio Classroom” in the Metcalf Science Center, Duffy says. “Compared to 15 years ago, all sections of introductory physics have benefited from interactive learning methods, as well as from the use of undergraduate learning assistants,” who have taken a course themselves and are hired to help faculty teach it. Upper-level physics courses also use the assistants.

Another change this year has been broad use of “studio physics,” where students cluster at large tables for hands-on peer work. Duffy says a comparison of learning in that milieu versus traditional lectures, discussions, and lab work, while incomplete, “suggests that the studio mode of learning has advantages.”

Quality measurements will include student performance on midterms and final exams. So far, says Duffy, “the results support the idea that the students learn more and, especially, enjoy the interactive mode of learning. Technology by itself is not a magic bullet. When technology supports an active-learning environment, however, it is beneficial.”

“What impressed us so much about the physics team’s project was not only the rigor and considerable thought that went into it, but what we believe are its applicability and potential as a model across disciplines for other educators,” Morrison says. “We are proud to count them, and all of this year’s nominees, among our faculty and excited for what the future holds in their research and teaching.”

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Rich Barlow

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

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