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New(trino) Dean

New(trino) Dean
Sacha Kopp, the new associate dean of curriculum and programs, has been active in science education for almost as long as he’s been active in elementary particle physics. As a doctoral student, he helped to develop a pilot program to re-train science teachers in the Chicago public schools. As an assistant professor at Syracuse University, he started a program (which he’s continued here at UT) to recruit undergraduate teaching assistants to assist in large lecture courses. He’s served as associate chair for undergraduate affairs in the Physics Department. He also collaborated with several faculty in the College of Natural Sciences to develop a  new Center for Inquiry in Math and Science, which is devoted to promoting and supporting the use of inquiry-based methods in science and math education. At the same time, he and his research team study the physics of neutrinos through an experiment based at Fermilab outside Chicago.



I sat down with Kopp to talk about his new position and his vision for the future of teaching and learning in the College of Natural Sciences.



Insight: You’ve just been named associate dean for curriculum and programs. What are you planning to do to make the college a better place?

Sacha Kopp: If I had to name four top priorities: I’d like to see peer mentoring become much more a part of undergraduate culture, I’d like to continue to expand our commitment to inquiry-based learning, provide more opportunities for faculty to collaborate on curriculum and teaching, and continue to integrate Quest, and other online tools, into the way courses are taught.



What do you mean by peer mentoring?

Using upper level students as teaching assistants—or mentors, or tutors, whatever the title—to help incoming students in introductory courses.  The College already does this, for instance, through the TIP Mentor Academy, the Freshman Research Initiative, the UT Learning Center, but there’s room for more of it.  It would be outstanding if this became a significant part of the culture of the college, where  many of our students would contribute peer mentoring service.

It’s obvious what mentoring does for the mentee. But what does it do for the mentor other than pad his resume and give him the warm and fuzzies?

Well, it certainly would be a feather in his or her cap. But more importantly peer mentoring will make them stronger as students. When you learn enough material to actually teach it, you know it much better than if you just took the class and got your  grade.  One of my most important undergraduate experiences was being an undergraduate teaching assistant for a pre-calc math course; later, I had an opportunity to assist Nobel-laureate physicist Leon Lederman as an undergrad TA for his ‘physics for poets’ class.  I learned a lot about the material, but more importantly I learned a lot about helping others succeed.

Tell me about inquiry-based learning. What does that mean?

It’s what we’re already doing in a course like Research Methods, which about a quarter of the incoming freshman class takes. The FRI is an example of inquiry-based learning. It’s about involving students directly in the process of discovery, taking them a step beyond the traditional lecture course. Instead, you’re going to be asked to do research, perform experiments and solve new problems. It’s a student-centered approach in which they construct their knowledge, and the faculty member has the challenging position of facilitator and leader. It’s the core of how graduate education works in this country, and more and more we are hearing from experts in education that this same process works well at the undergraduate level. Some of our faculty, notably Dee Silverthorn, Michael Marder, Michael Starbird, Cynthia LaBrake, or Peter English, are well-known practitioners of this method (many others as well, but these are a few I know).

Then what? Are you going to revamp the whole way we teach science? Is it all going to be inquiry-based? Are you going to be the Inquiry Czar?

We aren’t going to end up replacing everything with inquiry. It’s not feasible, and it’s probably not desirable. We have many gifted instructors and lecturers in this college, and inquiry-based learning should be seen as yet another item in one’s toolkit, available when the course warrants it.

The college can make resources available so that faculty and departments can experiment with this or other teaching models if they choose. It’s an offering—if you’d like to do an experiment, here are some resources we can offer. Here’s some data on what seems to work and what doesn’t. It’s about creating a culture of innovation and providing support for it.

What role does new media play in the future of the college?

As the technology continues to improve, the classroom is only one of the media through which students take in information. Students access information from sources not imaginable just a few years ago. Last year, when a student was trying to correct me on a formula I’d incorrectly written on the board during class, she pulled out her iPhone and within a couple minutes was able to find the correct derivation in an online text.

There are already some very successful examples of faculty using Quest, our online learning program, to supplement their courses. David Laude has done it for his introductory chemistry lecture. Deborah Walker has done it for another chemistry class. John Gilbert and Elizabeth Stepp have done interesting online experiments in mathematics, just to name a few.

At the college level, we can offer support to people who are experimenting with alternative methods of instruction. Then we can observe what they’ve done, understand what it took to develop the tools, and develop a centralized set of resources that can be useful to instructors who don’t necessarily want to be the innovators, but who would love to have online tools if they were easy to adapt to their own needs.

So how did you end up here? Isn’t experimental physics complicated enough for you?

I was, and am, active in a research program in neutrino physics, but I’m also an educator. That role has grown from just teaching my classes to caring about the undergraduate program in physics to now caring about a broader portfolio of things in the college. My scientific career has always been most enjoyable when it has involved collaborations to achieve challenging goals (some of the experiments on which I’ve worked included 400 collaborating scientists from 40 universities). I hope to similarly enjoy collaborating with others on the science (and art) of teaching.
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