Arjendu K. Pattanayak: Summary of Work at Rice


I was hired by Rice to work on improving teaching and learning in the introductory courses at Rice Physics. 

Introductory courses: My major project at Rice has been overhauling Physics 101/102, which is two semesters of a calculus-based introductory physics course, with an enrollment of about 200 students, the majority of whom are engineers. There are significant 'minority' populations in the course as well -- that is, there are many architects and some biology and natural science majors for example. Rice also recruits about a third of its physics majors from this course. It is safe to say that this was, as is unfortunately the case on many campuses, not one of the most popular courses; matters were exaggerated because of its large enrollment.

I restructured the course to include the ideas above, trying to take advantage of Rice's small size and the fact that most freshmen are on campus, among other things. I also wanted the changes to be as painless as possible. The restructured course now works as follows:

  • Mondays and Wednesdays are traditional lectures, with demonstrations as appropriate.
  • Through the later part of the week we offer cooperative-group problem-solving tutorials. In these sessions, students work together on assigned suggested problems. There is a tutorial leader (undergrads, graduate students and sometimes faculty) present, his/her role being to suggest ideas, encourage the groups along the right tracks and to generally assist the students, but to not solve the problems for them. We lightly encourage participation in these sessions by providing redemption credit towards homework. 

  • [This is a very informal version of the Hellers' cooperative learning groups at U-Minnesota.]

  • Fridays are `Zapper Days' in class: Students are asked multiple-choice conceptual questions that they have to think about on their own before voting. They then discuss their answers with their neighbors and vote again. Finally, I lead a large-group discussion explaining the problem and the answer, usually getting students to do most of the talking. We then move onto another question, managing about 6-8 questions in a lecture hour.

  • [This is a somewhat more intense form of Eric Mazur's peer-instruction technique. Student vote using zappers -- infrared transmitters resembling TV remotes. These and accompanying hardware/software were obtained through a proposal to Rice, written with Marj Corcoran and Stan Dodds. These are now also being used in Phys 125/6 (Introductory Physics for Pre-meds)].

  • Over the weekend, the students take pledged online timed quizzes (using a commercially available package called WebCT) on conceptual issues (they are allowed to repeat the quiz once after seeing what they got wrong) and also work individually on 'pledged problems', thus effectively doing a mini-test over the material from the previous week.
  • Mid-semester tests and finals have the appropriate mix of conceptual multiple-choice questions and free-response word problems.
  • We use a freshman physics listserv for discussions and announcements and also have up-to-date and carefully designed course web-pages for efficient communication. 
  • Laboratories are scheduled such that the material covered there is in concert with the lectures.
The goal of this structure is to provide a steady rhythm to the students' week, to lead them through conceptual ideas and problem-solving skills in alternation while leading up to the weekend 'mini-test'. It seems to be effective and has been well-received -- in particular, the course evaluations are much improved over previous years. 

I recently made an invited presentation at a Rice University Showcase on the use of technology in teaching. The unusual teaching methods I use were also featured in a Rice News article. This indicates that we are on the right track, but these methods need to be further evaluated and adjusted.

Advanced courses: I taught a special topics course on Chaos and Quantum Chaos in Spring 2000. I had a mixed bunch of students, about half graduate students and half undergrads. They ranged from bright but not-fully-prepared sophomores through a graduating Ph.D. student whose dissertation work was on chaos in Rydberg atoms. 

I taught it as a research project course. Every week I would lecture once (for ninety minutes -- two hours) and would meet with the students individually (for 30 minutes -- one hour) to discuss research projects. The projects were chosen by the students (in consultation with me) and their work on the projects and their final reports constituted the bulk of their grade.

It was a challenging and exhilarating experience. While one semester does not provide sufficient time to make huge progress, some students were able to do significant work. One is now doing a senior research project with me and we should publish a journal article shortly. More importantly, all the students felt that by studying a specific question in great detail, they were able to gain deeper understanding of the material on top of the breadth from the course coverage. I have some ideas about how an improved version of this format can be used in all advanced courses and certainly for special topics courses.

Courses at Rice