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Brad Plaster

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Award for Innovative Teaching
2016 College of Arts and Sciences Award Ceremony

At the risk of putting you on the spot, what contribution to teaching do you believe led to your award recognition during the 2015-2016 academic school year?
Development of TEAL (Technology Enhanced Active Learning) versions of PHY 211 and PHY 213 (introductory physics courses taken by biology, chemistry, life sciences, etc. majors).

In your opinion, what are the qualities of a great teacher?
Someone who conveys passion for the subject, displays enthusiasm, capable of engaging students, motivates students.

What do you find most gratifying about teaching?
Engaging students; convincing them that they are actually quite capable of understanding and mastering the subject material.

What makes teaching challenging?
Engaging students who are only enrolled in the course because it is a requirement for their major, and thus have no interest in the subject other than receiving a "good grade" with a minimal amount of work.

How have you navigated those challenges?
There is not so much one can do about students who truly don't care; however, I believe with proper motivation and encouragement, one can engage those who might otherwise not have been interested.

What are your interests outside of teaching (i.e., hobbies)?
Exercise (running, swimming, cycling), travel, spending time with my family (wife, 3-year old daughter).

Who inspires you? And why?
Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate in Physics and faculty member at Cal-Tech; in addition to his research accomplishments culminating in the Nobel Prize, he was also a gifted teacher. At Cal-Tech, there is the "Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching."

What is your favorite book and/or author?
I actually prefer non-fiction books on current events (when I have time to read, which I have very little of these days ...).

What would want to be if you weren’t a teacher?
Full-time research at one of the national accelerator laboratories (my research field is nuclear physics).

What advice would you give to faculty at the beginning of her/his teaching career?
Discuss with senior faculty their experiences in the classroom, in an attempt to understand who your "audience" in the classroom will be.

In your opinion, how can faculty be most effective in the classroom?
In introductory courses, I believe perhaps the most effective thing one can do is to attempt to understand what motivates the students in the course, why they are enrolled, etc. Faculty's attitude in the classroom also sets the tone from day one.

What resources would you share with other faculty seeking to adopt new teaching practices?
Attend teaching workshops on campus and read articles on modern teaching practices.

Brad Plaster is an Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences.