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Congratulations to the newest Physics Education Research PhD—Danny Caballero

July 26, 2011

Update: I added a link to Danny’s latest paper

Today I had the distinct pleasure of watching Danny Caballero’s thesis defense. Here’s the poster some of his colleagues created to advertise the event:

To get a sense of the great ideas that Danny’s bringing to the physics world, check out his latest paper: Implementing and Assessing Computational Modeling in Introductory Physics, where Danny shows that students can solve VPython problems without help.

In the past two years, Danny has become a wonderful colleague and friend to me. His insights on designing computational homework and countless discussions about how to bring computational modeling to a level where 9th grade students can appreciate it have had a tremendous impact on my teaching. And I sense that his impact on physics teaching at Georgia Tech has been nothing short of phenomenal. It isn’t often that grad students are given a section of intro physics to teach, he’s run the lab and TA program for years, and he’s used his Webassign wizardry powers to turn online physics homework into a true learning tool that is simply astounding.

Anyway, never having been to a thesis defense before, I didn’t know what to expect. I was a bit afraid that there might not be that many people there for a talk on PER, since your stereotypical physics professor scoffs at education research and can’t be bothered to take time away from “real” research to learn about how to be how to improve his (it’s almost always a him who is this self-absorbed) teaching practice.

I think relevant and rigorous work like Danny’s is helping to get physics past this stereotype. The conference room where Danny presented was packed—I think almost every professor from the department and the majority of the grad students were in attendance, and this was a pretty amazing sight to behold. When Danny’s presentation was over the the audience engaged him with thoughtful questions for more than half an hour, and the enthusiasm that this room exuded for physics teaching was truly refreshing.

I also thought a moment about just what a powerful educational moment this was—more than 20 faculty and 20 grad students sitting in a room, all focused on learning from one student reaching the pinnacle of his physics career (thus far), in a conversation that ran for more than 90 minutes. It was a moment of deep and genuine learning, and it was free of any high-stakes anxiety (at least as far as I could tell) that pervades so much of education today. It really was a celebration of learning, and made me wonder why we can’t create moments like this for students without having them first spend 22 years in school? I know there are schools out there where exhibitions and capstone presentations are an essential element of the high school experience, and I think this would be a wonderful thing to expand to more schools. What would happen if every student from a school graduated knowing that they’ve had the opportunity to speak at length before an audience of 20 teachers and students?

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 26, 2011 3:31 am

    Capstone presentations are pretty standard in engineering curricula, so engineering students generally get to do this sort of presentation a couple of times before their BS.

    I believe that Project Lead The Way (PLTW) schools have capstone presentations in high school.

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