|National Physics Community Honors Davidson Professor for Excellence in Teaching
August 25, 2009
Contact: Kelly Beggs '09
The American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) recently honored Davidson Associate Professor of Physics Mario Belloni with the 2009 Excellence in Undergraduate Physics Teaching Award. Lila Adair, past-president of AAPT and Awards Committee chair, said, “Mario is well known as an author, public speaker, researcher, workshop leader, motivator of students, award-winning professor, and an innovator in the use of technology for teaching.”
|Mario Belloni with summer research students (l-r) Seyi Ayorinde '10 and Kelsey Chisholm '10.
It was the second time this 11,000-member international organization has honored Belloni, following his receipt of its Distinguished Service Award in 2006. Still, he said, “I was very surprised when I found out about it, and I was very humbled. The organization has just so many good people, and many of them have been very instrumental in helping me improve my teaching.”
Belloni’s contributions to physics education have improved pedagogy on Davidson’s campus and far beyond. He began teaching at Davidson in 1998, after earning his B.A. at the University of California Berkeley and his M.S. and Ph. D. in theoretical particle physics from the University of Connecticut. He chose to teach at Davidson, he said, “because Davidson had the best mix of the things that I really wanted to do—teaching, research, and research with undergraduates. I didn’t want to be at a place where the research expectation was so high that you couldn’t do something innovative in the classroom.”
At Davidson, Belloni has collaborated with Brown Professor of Physics Wolfgang Christian to create highly successful teaching technology and interactive curricular materials. Their system of Physlets ® and the suite of Open Source Physics programs provide interactive simulations to help students grasp abstract concepts.
The Davidson colleagues frequently give presentations and workshops on how to use Physlets ® in the classroom, and they have co-authored eight books and created more than 1,000 Physlet-based exercises. Their work has been published in Slovenian, German, Hebrew and Spanish. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and Associated Colleges of the South (ACS) have supported Christian and Belloni’s research with multiple grants, and their work received the 2002 MERLOT Award for Exemplary Online Learning Resources.
Belloni and Christian’s innovations are reaching physics educators at the right time. “In many ways the field of physics teaching is far ahead of other disciplines,” Belloni said. “In the last 20 years, physics has been at the forefront of research into student learning, student misconceptions, and how to get students more actively involved in the classroom. The field of physics education research is now at the point where there is a body of very convincing data —the old way of lecturing just doesn’t work. As soon as you make the classroom more interactive with students, the learning gains go up.”
Using Physlets and Open Source Physics programs increases interactive learning in the classroom. “Wolfgang and his students created these simulations, and we have worked together in creating the associated curricular materials,” Belloni said, “to have students asking questions, to try and get them motivated and interested in physics concepts and also to provide a visualization of what the physics terms mean. Without the added interaction and visualization, it’s often easy for students who don’t have a strong background in math or science to get hung up in the wording.”
Physics education presents unique communication challenges for educators and students. Belloni explained that in one semester of introductory astronomy, a student learns just as much new vocabulary as a student learns in a semester of a foreign language. Students trying to learn a new scientific language alongside complex concepts find the path to comprehension is difficult.
By providing visualizations, simulations can break through the scientific language barrier. Belloni said, “It often gets around all that jargon.” The simulations can demonstrate concepts both basic and advanced, so it can be used in academic settings ranging from elementary to graduate-level courses.
However, though Physlets and Open Source Physics programs are valuable teaching assistants, Belloni emphasizes that they are not substitute teachers. “Technology without pedagogy is just technology,” Belloni said. “It really matters how you use the simulations, and what curricular materials are used alongside the simulations, in order to get the best pedagogical result.”
To heighten his sensitivity to his students’ needs, Belloni uses a method called Just in Time Teaching (JiTT), developed in part by his colleague Wolfgang Christian. The professor gives students questions to complete outside of class, and students send answers back before the next class period (just in time) so that the professor can diagnose problem areas and tailor class instruction to student needs. Belloni explained, “With JiTT you find out what the students know, and then you teach accordingly.”
To keep students actively involved in all parts of the learning process, when possible Belloni prefers to teach in the laboratory so that students can work with simulations as he speaks. In larger classes, he incorporates group work and student discussion into his teaching.
He said, “I can come up with several ways to explain a particular concept in my words, but it’s often more useful for students to see how other students are trying to describe the same concept. Then, they’re not getting my description from the front of the classroom. They’re hearing their colleagues’ own words.”
His students’ experiences show that Belloni effectively employs his teaching philosophy in the classroom and in the laboratory. Davidson physics majors Kelsey Chisholm ’10 and Seyi Ayorinde ’10, both Belloni’s advisees, have spent the summer working in Belloni’s lab conducting theoretical research on fundamental quantum-mechanical systems. Since arriving at Davidson, Belloni has published nine papers in theoretical physics, three with undergraduate students as co-authors. He expects two papers from the research with Kelsey and Seyi.
Ayorinde said, “It’s been a great experience. He doesn’t give us all of the answers. He tells us what we need to know and then encourages us to work independently.” Chisholm agreed, saying, “He gives us a lot of freedom.”
Both praised their professor’s sense of humor, and Chisholm said, “He makes an effort to get to know his students outside of class.” Ayorinde agreed, saying that Belloni has even been to several of his football games.
With the AAPT’s Award for Undergraduate Teaching, the commendation of Belloni’s colleagues around the world matches the praise of his students, recognizing his development of a new and effective formula for physics educators—a balance of independent learning and attentive instruction, research and teaching, and pedagogy and technology.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,800 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.