Mark Bottorff

Title: Associate Professor of Physics
Department: Physics
Southwestern University
Phone: (512) 863- 1631
Office: FJS 149


PhD, University of Kentucky, 1999

Teaching Philosophy

Every year since I arrived at SU I have added learner centered, activity-based elements to the courses I teach. Having students actively engage course material, whether in the classroom, the laboratory, while working outside the class in small groups or when working individually, intensifies their learning experience and gives the student ownership of the learning process. My primary testing ground for this approach has been the Exploring the Universe (PHY53-054) course. Over the years I have progressively replaced many of the lecture elements in the course with activity based learning exercises without adversely effecting student learning or student attitudes toward the course. In the currently configured course only about one in three class meetings involve a formal lecture. The other class meeting periods are devoted to working with collectivized student data obtained using small telescopes at the Fountainwood Observatory, working with professional astronomy data put into digestible form for non-science majors, conducting in-class non-telescope experiments (i.e. measuring the pull of Earth’s gravity using a pendulum), and working with 3D models (i.e. small wood balls to represent the Earth, moon, and a planet and a light to represent the sun) in order to investigate the causes of the seasons, lunar phases, eclipses and the apparent retrograde motion of planets. I have given my approach the acronym SODA which stands for Student Observation Driven Astronomy. Growing confidence in this approach enabled me to write a SODA ACS Mellon Foundation grant coupled with an SU professional development grant about four years ago. Astronomy labs from across the ACS, including some of my own, were collected, edited and otherwise transformed into SODA activities. Two SU students were involved in this work and one wrote her physics capstone based on a SODA star cluster activity. The result of the grant is about 200 pages of astronomy related learning material. Since then I have created an additional 50 or so pages of new SODA activities. Over the last two years I have presented astronomy education posters about implementation of SODA materials at the 217th and 219th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Recently I have been teaching calculus based Fundamentals of Physics (PHY53-154 and PHY53-164). The sections are large. Each has about 60 to 70 students in it. They are populated by biology, chemistry, kinesiology, psychology, physics and pre-engineering students as well as the occasional mathematics, computer science and economics major. The physics department is hopeful that in the near future it will be able to split both PHY53-154 and PHY53-164 into smaller sections appropriate for different groups of majors (i.e. life science majors vs. physics and pre-engineering students). This will require some negotiations with NSD. In the mean time the challenge is to provide students in the course with as high a quality learning experience as possible. I am more constrained to give lectures in this course sequence than in Exploring the Universe. Nevertheless I have made efforts to foster active learning in the lecture hall. For example I include “Popsicle stick” questions in which voluntarily participating students write their names on a Popsicle. When I have a question for the class I draw a Popsicle out of a can and ask the corresponding student a question. They get some extra credit for participating (and it is a rough indicator of attendance). I allow “lifelines” so if they get stuck a nearby friend can provide an answer. In addition I occasionally put a question up on the board and have the class split into groups of two students each to work out a short problem. The result is then discussed between the two students and then sometimes with the rest of the class in a “think-pair-share” type of exercise. Sometimes I take a vote about which (if any) of several proffered answers is correct. In the process I try to get students to voice their physical reasoning for supporting an answer before a vote. In addition to my efforts to get students to think actively in class I have injected some of my SODA work into PHY53-154. In the Fall 2011 semester I required that every student in the class make at least one moon position observations at the observatory during a two month period. 73 students made one (or more for extra credit) observation. The observing times ranged from sunset to midnight to sunrise (depending on the lunar phase) and I was at every observation. The data was collectivized into an analysis worksheet which enabled them to use their own data to study gravitation and basic orbital mechanics. A short diagnostic was used to analyze student learning gains. An ANOVA test of this pilot project diagnostic data revealed that learning gains were modest but equal across different performance groups. This suggests that low performing students learned proportionately the same as high performing students. To my knowledge an orbital mechanics project using student collected data has never been done before in a Fundamentals of Physics course. In the future I hope to continue my efforts to increase student learning through the further addition of activity based exercises at all levels of instruction.