September 2021: Geoff Potvin

Florida International University, Miami, Florida

Geoff Potvin

  • Member since 2007
  • Associate Professor
  • Miami, Florida

About Geoff

Like a lot of people, I grew up interested in math and science but only discovered physics in high school when I took my first physics class with an inspiring physics teacher. I had a friend around the same time who gave me a book about theoretical physics, and I decided then I wanted to study physics in university. It wasn’t until my second year at the University of Waterloo that I discovered teaching – I was asked by my introductory physics professor to work in a “drop-in” help center. I was completely flattered to be asked to do this, even more so because they were going to pay me to help students! Working as a teaching assistant turned out to be my favorite part of my education. Supporting students as they grapple with physics ideas has always been extremely rewarding for me. By now, I’ve taught in some capacity for over half of my life.

I worked in string theory during my PhD at the University of Toronto and continued to be very attached to my teaching roles. Despite having an NSERC graduate fellowship which freed me from a teaching requirement, I still chose to teach every year. I also came to be aware of physics education research and evidence-based teaching practices generally so, near the end of my PhD, I had an opportunity to work on a science education research project (thanks to Robert Tai). That became my segue into full time education research. My interdisciplinary experiences outside of physics allowed me to see physics teaching and learning from new perspectives. As a faculty member (first in the Department of Engineering and Science Education at Clemson University, now in the Department of Physics and the STEM Transformation Institute at Florida International University), I have been able to interact and collaborate with people in several different disciplines. This has been extremely helpful and rewarding to my research and my classroom teaching.

Part of my original motivation to do education research was coming to realize as a graduate student that many of my colleagues, particularly women and people from minoritized racial/ethnic groups, often had to overcome negative and discouraging experiences in order to pursue physics. As part of feminist and other activist circles I was a part of during graduate school, I have been thinking for a long time about the experiences that students have in physics, especially the stories we tell each other about what it means to do physics and who does physics. If we, as educators, can change these stories and the culture of what it means to do physics – inside and outside classrooms – then we can enable more opportunities for students to see themselves as physics people, feel like they belong in physics and can do physics in ways that benefit themselves and society as a whole.