Alex Travesset Teaching
Professor Wagstaff: Tomorrow we start tearing down the college.
The Professors: But, Professor, where will the students sleep?
Professor Wagstaff: Where they always sleep: in the classroom.
G. Marx in Horse feathers

Some thoughts about teaching

I love teaching and I see it as an integral part of my career. I like to think that my activity as a researcher makes me a better educator, because research provides a deeper and more personal understanding of the subjects I teach, which I then can communicate to the students.

Teaching also impacts my research, as it forces me to think about basic concepts and verbalize them in ways that students can understand, sometimes having to face my ignorance in topics that I thought I had well understood: This is certainly a rewarding experience.

What are the challenges I see as a physics teacher? Probably, we need to rethink the way we teach physics in advanced and semi-advanced courses. While important progress has been made in the way we teach introductory physics, advanced or semi-advanced physics courses follow a very traditional approach. We solve problems like the ideal gas, springs, waves, etc.. in highly idealized situations. While this captures the essence of physics; The ability to describe things as simple as possible but not simpler Einstein dixit , it often happens that in order to adapt the subject to the appropriate level, we are forced to discuss examples that are solvable and to a large extent, excessively simple, thus leaving the student with the feeling that physics is a very academical activity.

But physics does describe the real world with amazing accuracy! With desktop computers, for example, we can solve real gases or liquids or predict complex properties of exotic solid materials with an intellectual effort that is not greater than the one it takes to understand, for example, why ℏ appears in the definition of the classical partition function or how to interpret the solution of a radiating antenna in terms of a bunch of Bessel functions. And the computational effort to solve real materials is, in many cases, doable with modest computational resources, more so with the availability of GPUs for scientific calculations.

How to incorporate more reality and less idealizations into our physics courses? This is a challenge that will keep me entertained for quite a few years..I am looking forward to it!

Courses I am teaching now

PHYS115: Introductory Physics for Life Sciences (web site). Course material available in Blackboard Learn.

Courses I taught in the past

PHYS304: Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics (2009-2013)
PHYS551: Computational Methods in Physics (2010)
PHYS364: Electromagnetism I (2006-2008)
PHYS365: Electromagnetism II (2006-2007)
PHYS512: Solid State II (2004-2006)
PHYS511: Solid State I (2003-2005)
PHYS 221&222: Recitations.