Paying it Forward: How One Physics Professor Embraces Teaching

The undergraduate institution I attended, Universidad de las Américas—Puebla (UDLA-P, in Cholula, Mexico) was not unlike the University of St. Thomas. With a strong academic program, a beautiful campus and an enrollment of around 10,000 students, UDLA-P was a great place to study.

What stands out for me when I look back at the years I spent at UDLA-P are the great friends I made and the wonderful faculty in the Physics Department. My professors encouraged me in my studies, but also in pursuing opportunities for research experiences, for studying abroad, and ultimately for attending graduate school. I am very grateful for their support and encouragement. It is my appreciation of the important role they played in my life that gives meaning and purpose to my job as a faculty member, which I see as my way of paying it forward.

I graduated from UDLA-P in December 2002, eight months before I was scheduled to begin graduate work at the University of Minnesota. Back then, teaching introductory physics at a local college seemed like an easy and fun job to have for the spring semester.

I was right and I was wrong: It was a lot of fun. I greatly enjoyed teaching and the relationships I developed with my students. But it was not easy. At the end of the semester I felt like I had failed my students, especially the one who actually failed the course. My students lacked the necessary math skills to be successful in this course and they were unable to devote enough time to their studies to make up for this as they all worked full time at the local Volkswagen plant. At the same time, I did not have the tools and the strategies to successfully teach physics. Nobody had taught me how to teach.

In graduate school I actively pursued opportunities to teach and to learn how to teach. At the University of St. Thomas I have benefited from a vibrant academic community and ongoing dialog with faculty colleagues. I often engage in discussions on teaching in my office, in the hallway, at lunch and at faculty seminars.

Teaching is a challenge that motivates me and that I find deeply rewarding. It is my goal to help students appreciate the deeper understanding that physics gives us about the world around us, and the contributions that physicists have made. I want students to appreciate that the problem-solving and critical thinking skills they acquire in the classroom do not only apply to physics, but are helpful in many other fields and throughout life.

Since coming to St. Thomas, my research has focused on two fields that complement each other: the theoretical and computational study of the properties of nano-scale systems such as molecules and atomic clusters, and curriculum development in the areas of modern physics and integrating computation into the undergraduate physics curriculum.

In the laboratory I use supercomputers to gain an understanding of the optical and electronic properties of atomic clusters, and to discern trends that will give a better understanding of the role of quantum effects in these systems. In the classroom I use my knowledge of computational physics and nano-scale physics to develop curricula and laboratories that will give our students the skills they need to be successful scientists and engineers.

Over the last six years, I have redeveloped the sophomore-level Applications of Modern Physics course and laboratory that serves as
an introduction to computational physics at UST. Scientists and engineers in industry and academia use computers for data collection and analysis, simulations, symbolic manipulation and numerical analysis.

In my department we believe that the most effective way to build our students’ computational skills is by embedding computation throughout the curriculum. Beginning with Applications of Modern Physics and through continuous exposure in upper-level courses and laboratories, our students build, maintain and refine their computational skills, and become comfortable using the computer as a tool to solve complex problems.

The Applications of Modern Physics course focuses on statistical and quantum physics. In this course we discuss the electrical properties of materials, clarify the connection between quantum mechanics and these electrical properties, and show how modern electronic devices such as transistors and light-emitting diodes depend on these properties. The lab introduces students to problem-solving using the MATLAB software package and exposes students to the interplay of theory, computation and experimentation that is now fundamental in science.

Many students have been involved in the development of laboratories and simulations for the Applications of Modern Physics course. Students have been engaged in researching initial ideas, writing code, testing materials and offering suggestions and feedback. My students regularly participate in UST poster sessions and regional meetings to disseminate our work. It was a proud moment when Jennifer, one of my undergraduate research advisees, presented a peer-reviewed article at the annual conference of the American Society of Engineering Education. I am also proud that a large fraction of the students I have mentored have been women and minority students who are underrepresented in physics.

My research into the theoretical and computational study of the properties of nano-scale systems involves computationally and memory intensive calculations. I worked with Mark and Emmaly, two undergraduate computer science students, and Dr. Gerry Ruch to build a 16-processor Beowulf parallel-computer cluster in which to run these calculations. The computer cluster has also been used by faculty and undergraduate students for other research projects, such as the modeling of bird flocking and a chaotic pendulum.

Looking back, I see how far I have come from that first teaching experience. Looking ahead, I am excited about the future. I know there will be challenging courses, exciting research opportunities and interesting collaborations. My students, the UST community and the larger physics community continuously push me to keep growing as a teacher and as a researcher.

This May, as they turned their final exams in, many of my students thanked me for my work this semester. Then a couple of them excitedly asked me when they could start working on their summer research projects.

Associate professor Dr. Marie Lopez del Puerto teaches in the Department of Physics. 

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.