Lisa Wickham, AEP, Mr. & Mrs. Richard F. Tucker '50 Award
In classes like classical mechanics and electrodynamics, Lisa Wickham is tasked with preparing students from a wide range of backgrounds to take a broad variety of paths in science and engineering. So she has to pack a lot of topics into every class, while still trying to teach how all the material was derived. She accomplishes this with "guided discovery."
"I ask for student input at key points in the derivation. This forces me to articulate what I am trying to accomplish at that step, and hopefully forces them to do some critical thinking at that point," she says. "I find that this helps to emphasize why we are taking that approach in the derivation."
Wickham's derivations aren't all as lengthy or mathematically complicated as she made them when she first started teaching. "One strategy I occasionally employ is to construct a handout with most of a proof, but with blanks in a few key places," she says. "This allows us to run through the proof quickly, and forces the students to focus on the key steps in the proof because those are the steps that I force them to write in by hand."
Besides informing her instruction for the current class, those student questions help Wickham refine her approach in future classes. "I try to remember key questions the students ask, so that the next year I can either incorporate the answers into my lectures or be ready with the answer if a student shows signs of being puzzled by the same thing," she says. "This is a hugely important process for me, but what is also useful is if I have gotten enough of a feel for how our students ask questions that I have a chance of anticipating one or more of their questions when I prepare to teach brand new material. When this happens, I realize that the students have helped to shape ways in which I analyze material."
Wickham also encourages students to question each other, especially when they are having trouble understanding the material. "I believe that a lot of learning happens in discussions among our students," she says.
One of the more rewarding aspects of teaching, says Wickham, is seeing the intellectual growth of her students from when she starts teaching them at the start of their junior year to when she finishes teaching them at the end of their junior year to when they return as seniors who are trying to pick a professional direction.
"I remember actually having a few tears of joy in my eyes the day my first batch of advisees graduated," she says. "I had taught them for two semesters and advised them for two years and it was a very proud moment to shake their hands as they worked their way along the line of faculty during our departmental commencement reception on graduation day."