Steven Manly, associate professor of physics and astronomy, has been named Mercer Brugler Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Rochester. The appointment is a recognition of excellence in teaching and for encouraging the development of cross-disciplinary instructional programs.
Manly changed his physics class to be more inviting and effective for all students, regardless of their style of learning. Weekly workshop meetings that emphasize cooperative problem solving and the "humanizing" of the course by relating physics concepts to everyday life have allowed students who might have otherwise lost interest in physics to succeed.
"Steve has made an enormous impact on the teaching mission of the College in a very short time," says Thomas LeBlanc, Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Dean of the Faculty. "From his teaching of introductory physics to pre-med and life sciences students, to his introduction of peer-led workshops into the physics curriculum, Steve has been continuously engaged in improving undergraduate teaching using innovative methods. It is fitting that his efforts be recognized with this appointment."
Manly noted that often the large, introductory courses tend to be structured as if all the students were going to pursue degrees in physics. The accepted view is that any student who has difficulty in such a course will have difficulty succeeding as a professional physicist. He decided that though this approach works reasonably well for upper-level physics majors and graduate students, it is unnecessarily frustrating for a large fraction of non-physics majors, engineers, and weaker physics majors in the classes. Manly felt that the frustration came from the "sink or swim" mentality that most physicists tend to bring to the classroom, so he began developing a support infrastructure to help the students more easily grasp the course material.
Manly's physics workshops, modeled after a system first brought to the University by professor of chemistry Jack Kampmeier, are a system of two hour-long meetings each week where students work with their peers and a graduate student leader. The leader acts as a facilitator, not an answer-giver. The students are expected to work through the workshop problems as a group and the leaders are trained to make the students comfortable enough to ask questions and confront things they do not understand. Instead of being given an answer, they must find it for themselves. Simple props, such as yo-yos or basketballs, provide a way to reinforce a concept in a way that lectures and standard problems cannot.
"It is amazing to me the extent to which our teaching is culturally limited," says Manly. "I want to examine the potential usefulness of techniques not commonly used in physics. And to top it off, I hope to get some discussion going among people in different disciplines about how they tackle all the problems inherent in large courses. This idea isn't new, of course, but it always takes someone who wants to solve the problems to get the discussion going again."
After receiving his bachelor's degree in chemistry, mathematics, and physics in 1982 from Pfeiffer College in North Carolina, Manly earned his doctorate in experimental high energy physics from Columbia University in 1989 and joined the faculty at Yale. In 1998, he came to the University of Rochester where his research is leading him to experiments on heavy nucleus collisions to simulate the first microsecond of the universe. He's also begun an effort to measure minute gravitational effects on light propagating in optical fibers to test Einstein's general theory of relativity.
The professorship was established in 1979 in honor of Mercer Brugler, chair emeritus of the Board of Trustees, with support from Sybron Corporation, Mr. Brugler, and others, as a means of recognizing excellence in teaching and encouraging the development of cross-disciplinary instructional programs. The professorship is awarded to a full-time member of the College faculty.