December 2020: Tatiana Erukhimova
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas
- Member since 2015
- Instructional Professor
- College Station, Texas
I can’t imagine my life without teaching. Standing at the podium, roaming the stairs of a large lecture hall during class, building and showing exciting physics demonstrations with a group of student volunteers are some of my life’s greatest pleasures. The pandemic may have altered our teaching tools but we are getting more creative: zucchini and straws to explain cylindrical symmetry in Gauss’s law problems or a race of cans from your pantry down an inclined ironing board are never boring.
I was first offered to teach when I was a postdoc: it was a junior-level course on atmospheric thermodynamics. I enjoyed it. The class was small, the students were polite and friendly, and homework was always turned in on time. After three years of teaching that class I thought of myself as an experienced instructor and even coauthored a textbook with distinguished professor Gerald North. Then in 2006, an opportunity presented itself to become instructional faculty in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Texas A&M. At 8 am, I found myself in front of a large introductory physics class full of students fresh from high school who expected to see an Einstein-looking physics professor. Instead, they saw me. My first class was a disaster and it took me several months to find my voice teaching large introductory classes. That experience taught me the importance of getting students’ attention and respect from the very beginning, learning their names and faces despite the size of the class, and making every class interactive and memorable. My favorite quote from students' evaluations is "I can't help but see physics everywhere I go now. It's pretty neat." Ten years after my disastrous first large intro class, I was honored to receive the top teaching award at Texas A&M, the Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence.
It has always helped me that I was asked to develop a physics outreach program in the department. I interact with dozens of undergraduate and graduate students in informal settings on various outreach projects. Our outreach program is one of the best in the country and our annual Physics and Engineering Festivals draw thousands of visitors from all over Texas and other states. In the DEEP (Discover, Explore, and Enjoy Physics and Engineering) program our students work in small teams led by physics graduate students throughout the year. They design and build new exciting demonstrations and show them to our visitors at outreach events. The best way to understand something is to explain it. The Festival and programs like Physics Shows and Real Physics Live videos, Just Add Science, and Game Day Physics provide our students with a priceless opportunity to develop their “physics voice” and find their physics identity. They enable students to better integrate with the department and STEM community, to work in teams, and to gain new perspectives. Many of our former students start similar physics outreach programs in academia and industry, disseminating their “outreach expertise”. We also “train the trainer” through a program for high school teachers, helping those who didn’t have a chance to take physics classes when they were students and need our help the most.
I joined the AAPT recently: my first conference was the 2016 Winter Meeting in New Orleans. I was thrilled to be among people who were so passionate about physics education. Since then, these meetings have become my priority. I convinced several early career instructors to attend the AAPT meetings and brought three undergrads to present at the recent meetings. This year I am the Chair of the Committee on Science Education for the Public. I like working alongside my AAPT colleagues, some of whom I met during my very first meeting.