CETL Podcast - Episode 20 - Brandon Wiggins

Tony: Good afternoon! Good afternoon listeners. Tony Pellegrini here with Teaching and Learning at Southern Utah University. We’re tickled to have you listen in today as I pose a few questions to Brandon Wiggins from our physics department. Brandon would you be willing to take a moment or two and tell a little about your background and about your history and why you're so ticked to be here teaching at SUU?  

Brandon: Sure! So I went to SUU, I guess, as an undergraduate and so that's one of the reasons, at least, why I was absolutely thrilled at the opportunity to be able to come back. So, I did my undergraduate here, went off and did grad school- part of that was at Los Alamos National Laboratory where I did some computational astrophysics, which is just doing physics inside of a computer- and now I'm here teaching at Southern Utah University so that’s kind of neat.

Tony: That is exciting, that is very very exciting. And I know that you’ve had the- we’re recognizing and honoring you for your Outstanding Educator Award that you’ve won and we’re just ticked to be able to find out- to steal some great ideas from you and encourage some learners to come to your class and sign up for you classes because of the great activities that you have been involved in. Would you take a moment or two and talk to us a little bit about what made you decide to become a teacher? Why did you want to get away from that physics inside a computer? 

Brandon:  Well, the good thing about being a professor is you don't have to get all the way away from that type of thing you still get to keep your research a little bit. But, it was a deliberate choice to go to an institution that's primarily a teaching institution and not maybe a research based institution. I’ve had opportunities to go to bigger institutions and what you see there, of  course as everyone knows, is the student body is vast enough that you kind of have to treat students as populations rather than as people and so I love being here. I actually knew I was going to be a teacher as early as kindergarten. My grandpa was a Professor of Geology and he inspired me that early. It was decided by kindergarten, so I've been planning for a little while I guess. 

Tony: That is wonderful, I love your concept there of teaching people and not necessarily populations. That sounds a little bit like a teaching philosophy. Do you have a teaching philosophy that you follow? Would you be willing to share that with us?

Brandon: Sure! And I’ll say that first of all, I don’t know if mine’s the best, right? I’m sure- 

Tony: It works for you though right?  

Brandon: It works yeah. So I guess I could state mine probably in three different ways but I suppose I’m saying the same thing each time, but probably the best way to say this is I think I'd like to teach the class that I would want to take. That’s something that I think is very easy to forget to do because a lot of us have learning outcomes we’re trying to hit, there’s outcomes on the back end of all of this that we feel obligated to reach but that’s been kind of my guiding philosophy: teach the class that you would want to take. I guess another piece of that is I try to meet my students on sort of their own terms, and that’s important to me. 

Tony: I think that is very- from my perspective- very very profound and very telling. Meeting students on their own terms. As you know, I’m not a physics professor, and the content knowledge that you have about how our world and universe works is profound but you know absolutely humans are a part of that, students are a part of that, faculty is a part of that, but, we really have emotions that maybe physics doesn't really have those emotions how do you deal or come from a physical world to a social emotional world where you're working with human  students and trying to help them learn the lessons that you want them to learn. How do you go about doing that? 

Brandon: That’s a good question, um a lot of it is, I don’t know there’s a famous Ted speaker I think everyones seen it Ken Robinson he speaks a little bit- he’s spoken a couple of times at some Ted conferences and privately he's talked a little bit about how he teaches and he I guess starts a class and I love his way of doing this essentially what is says is, “I walk into a room and the first thing I try to do the first objective before content before anything is I try to make a connection with my students”. He said, “I have to feel around a little bit.” He said sometimes that takes two minutes, sometimes it takes 10 minutes. But he said, “I know nothing useful is done until after that connection is made”. I don't know if that's true or not but I found that to be true of my experience. We all know I think as professors what that feels like when we’ve made a meaningful connection with our students. I think that’s sort of the way I would answer that question it’s honestly I look up to the students that I teach they’re balancing a bunch of obligations and they're doing so rather masterfully there’s certainly more expectations on their time than they were even the short time ago that I was in college, and I think that connection is actually what makes- anyway that’s basically what makes teaching worthwhile but I also think it makes it very effective  

Tony: I really love that perspective of connecting with your students to find some way that we can speak the same language or have the same passions. Can you talk to us for a moment or two about how those connections- once you’ve made those, how do you use those to really help you to check with those students those incredibly brilliant and busy learners that you have to make sure that they are understanding what you're teaching that they are connecting not only to you but to your content? What are some of the ways and approaches that you use to check that or check for that student understanding?

Brandon: I think there's a couple of ways I think it all sort of revolves around sort of frequent low-stakes quizzing that doesn't need to be mean or vindictive or scary but throughout class there's opportunities, as most professors have, to participate. I pose questions that turn into discussions right, riddles if you like, that hopefully tickle their curiosity but also help them try to connect concepts together and you can get a fairly good gauge of student command of the subject through those discussions. But yeah I'm not afraid to quiz frequently either and at very low stakes I think there's kind of an illusion of knowing that kind of sets in when a professor makes this all seem very clear. I used to feel this when I would sit in a classroom. It would all seem so clear in the classroom when you go home by yourself and try to do the homework and it wouldn't be clear and the sooner you can have students fail the sooner, of course, they will succeed. We have a little saying in our class that we fail early to succeed sooner which I'm sure we borrowed from someplace else but I try to set up those moments of realization, I guess, as early as possible in lecure if possible or frequently outside of class on canvas or whatever that may be.   

Tony: That is very very appropriate for low stakes questions. I’m an old ESL teacher and I really do believe that all learning is second language learning and that we are emotional human beings and if those emotions rise than it really stops that communication that connection and I love the fact that you have these low stake formative quizzes that it’s okay to fail on those. How do you move it to the next step? How do you assess your student progress in a  more summative way? What are some of the approaches? What are some of the ways that you move from a low stakes formative assessment to more of a high stakes summative assessment while not really scaring your students away?

Brandon There's going to be a little bit of terror I think-

Tony: You just have to say Physics creates the terror! 

Brandon: Yeah well that's the thing I think in our classroom we all have the posture that it’s all of us against Physics I think, and physics is kind of this outside scary thing but the but the way I think that um- and I’m not doing anything too novel here I think every professor tries to do this as well I have very clear expectations of what students should be gaining command of. Half of the struggle is- I’ve taken courses where there's been unhelpful difficulties in maybe the course design not being as organized as I would have liked as a student, or not really knowing what was important to the professor- so now coming back as one of course that's one of the things I hit very hard: exactly what it is that I want students to learn, and then testing on that. We have a full day- I know this is unusual for my types of classes- but, we have full days where we just review for exams. We try to bring a bunch of different concepts together and hopefully put them together in a holistic way. As far as those summative assessments go I’m also one of those sticklers right now for- I still do written exams, I don’t do multiple choice still and it’s murdering me. But, the idea that a professor would take the time for my papers when I was coming here as a student and write comments in the margins, or what have you, that was- I still have tests and assessments from my undergraduate years because not only were they informative but they meant something to me that the professor would take that time. So my feedback on those tests which again are work out style tests I grade every line of work I tell my students I don't have a key when I start grading your tests. I’m looking for the correct process, the way you are thinking and that’s kind of the granular level that I’m grading at. I feel I owe that to the students in a way, if they’ve prepared themselves to show me a complete process I should be ready to give feedback on that complete process and reward them for command of that process. I haven't found away with that yet so-

Tony: I think that’s wonderful that you've had that absolutely modeled for you by SUU professors and you're contributing that to maybe future SUU professors. I think that’s wonderful. And I want to take a little bit of a different tact and change the tack just a little here. I've really heard in your voice your passion for teaching here at SUU. Can you talk to us for a moment or two about that love or that passion for teaching here at SUU. You've had opportunities like you said to go other places more research based what really instills that passion in you?

Brandon: That’s a good question I’m legitimately- so here's a couple of things- I think it was you professor that said this once, and I think it’s true of physics too, I’m just making the connection now as I’m talking. But one of the things that I assume is that no one wants to learn physics, right? My class is sort of a “physics for people who hate physics” class, and I kind of approach it on that level. Everyone’s taking this because they have to take a test,a  standardized test, usually to get into medical school or because their major requires it or what have you. So, a lot of them are not coming to me because of inherit passion for the subject and so it’s kind of - I don’t know my philosophy had been there are places that you can go where you can lock yourself in your office all day and do research. That really is a possibility for everyone who works at SUU, you can do that. But the reality is, we’re all giving that up, and we’re all giving that up because we want to influence people in the classroom so we might as well pull out all the stops as they say and make this experience a good one. I firmly believe that my students change my life, and my deepest aspiration is to maybe in some small way influence these students' lives if not with the love of learning or love of physics just with that general curiosity about the natural world I suppose. This is what makes life exciting for me, my fascination with the natural world and I think, I think that’s the way we should teach we all got into our fields because we love them and it’s just a matter of finding a way to communicate that. I don’t know where it comes from exactly, maybe it’s too much Dr. Pepper. Maybe that’s the correct answer.               

Tony: I’m not going to try to steer you away from that. Brandon just one last question for you to consider please. You know you’ve mentioned that you get to work with students who don’t have maybe a very deep passion for physics and so I’m sure you have a wide variety of a wide continuum of learners where understanding background and knowledge and skills at one end of that certainly from time to time you may have had a referral from the Disability Resource Center. How do you try to meet the needs of learners that are maybe at that end of the scale, that are challenged in those ways.

Brandon:  I’ve had the opportunity, as all of us have I’ve had the opportunity to do that, and by the way some of the coolest experiences that I’ve had as a professor have been working with these particular students. There’s some really good opportunities for a professor to really augment someone’s life. There was one particular student that I had that was formerly dylexic, so much so that simply reading the problem alone was an issue and then trying to construct a coherent calculation was a real struggle. Perhaps my optimism with teaching say Physics is that everyone thinks like a physicist, it’s just physicists often call these things different things. I mean everyone can balance a budget. In physics we balance energy; we make sure no energy is spent, all of the energy is accounted for and all the momentums accounted for. So after hours, this is nothing too noble we professors do this all the time outside of office hours, I met with this student and we would work problems on a whiteboard, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as a professor seeing this kid gain this confidence even though he had this disability that was holding him back. Tt wasn't holding him back and in fact the things we were talking about were actually very conceptually simple and they were things within his grasp, and seeing him put those all together was very rewarding. I have the philosophy that we can sometimes get caught up teaching classes and I do this as well I think we get pulled into the world of, “I’m going to put effort into my course”, but what makes SUU special to me is that everyone puts effort into people they put effort into these students almost on a one by one basis and I think that’s what’s in our secret sauce here.

Tony: It is delicious isn't it Brandon. Brandon our time is up, do you have any questions that I haven't asked you or anything that you would like to share or that I haven’t hit on that you really would like to share with our listeners? 

Brandon: No, I’ve just been thrilled to be here. It's been an absolute honor to be a part of the podcast. Thanks so much Tony.

Tony: You are very very welcome. I appreciate you and I’m grateful for your work. Friends, student friends, I hope you’d consider taking one of Brandon’s classes. And peers, faculty peers, I hope you’d consider reaching out to Brandon and hanging out with him or in his classes sometimes to see how he puts these activities into practice. Brandon you’ve been a delight I appreciate you and look forward to learning more about you in the future! 

Brandon: Hey, thanks so much Tony.

Tony: Thanks so much we’ll see you soon, bye now. 

Brandon: Bye bye now.

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