Final Note: Teaching Frontiers of Science was Wonderful

Four months passed and I am done with my first semester of teaching at Columbia. The whole experience was so amazing that I have to spend a few minutes before starting my vacation to write about my great feeling after finishing one semester of teaching Frontiers of Science at Columbia University.

Frontiers of Science is a great core course for freshmen in Columbia college. The idea is to develop scientific habits of mind for inquiry and problem solving for students. First year students with fresh minds whom always have brilliant questions about themselves, their world, and the universe. We teach scientific methods and help them develop critical thinking by using cutting-edge science in four different disciplines: neuroscience, astrophysics, biodiversity, and Earth science.

Teaching special relativity, general relativity, and cosmology, each in one session and in the most qualitative way, was a real challenge that most astrophysicists won’t believe it could happen. It was actually a real challenge but it happened! Defining space and time in a totally new way made students love or hate this unit. The best moment of it for me was when one of my students said in a mystified manner: “you are just lying; these are all lies”, and I truly loved it! Why did I love it? Because it meant something was shaking her whole fundamental understanding of time and space; she had just started thinking that life could be different from what she had already known. Then I wondered why we did not start teaching time and space in its more general cosmological way earlier in school? Why don’t we talk about time dilation and length contraction** earlier in life? Why not leaving our minds open to things that do not necessarily happen in our daily lives but anyhow exist in the universe? Why don’t we go beyond the classical traditional way of teaching in our schools?

Santa David Helfand giving the last Frontiers of Science lecture of the semester to the Columbia students.

Santa David Helfand giving the last Frontiers of Science lecture of the semester to the Columbia students.

The challenge in the astrophysics unit was the type of a challenge that I’d love to have. Teaching physics and astronomy, especially in innovative ways has been always my passion. The biggest exciting challenge for me, however, was teaching the other three disciplines of Frontiers of Science, especially neuroscience and biodiversity (Earth science is very related to physics in my opinion, so that was relatively trivial). I am truly grateful that I got to learn a lot and teach about brain as well as evolution during this course. It was definitely a great opportunity for me to learn extensively in topics that an astrophysicist would not touch in her career otherwise. It was so amazing to study about how our brain functions or malfunctions, different related neurological diseases and case studies, and the fact that how complicated the brain is and how little we know so far. Learning about natural selection, kin selection, and sexual selection among different species was also truly amazing which we covered in the biodiversity unit. These great experiences would never happen without having to learn quite enough to be able to teach it well in a class.

Not only learning these topics and teaching them were fun, but also learning from students was quite a great experience. The weekly in-class discussions and debates provided the opportunity for me to see new ways of thinking and discussing. I should confess that these students are far better than many scientists around me in the way they discussed a topic, their patience in a discussion, enough intellectual credits they gave to each other, their engagement, and trying to engage others in their discussions and a lot more useful skills. They were just amazing and I actually did not have to teach a lot related to how to make a successful debate, rather I learnt from them.

Besides the scientific capabilities, my students were truly lovely and wonderful. Their beautiful smile and their enthusiasm made me so excited for my classes every session. In a few years, they will be the most influential people of their generation and I will be very happy to see them making the world a better place, hopefully with even a minuscule effect my class had on them. I could not wish for a better class this semester and I am truly grateful for everything this opportunity brought into my life. I very much look forward to the next semester in which I get to apply my experiences and new ideas into teaching this course.

** When an object is moving with very high speed (near the speed of light), we on a "stationary” frame will see the object’s length shortened (length contraction) and its clock moving more slowly (time dilation). This relativity effect is only considerable at speeds near the speed of light. At daily speeds, it is negligible.