Shaping society by teaching

Image Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project

Last week I attended the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) summer meeting in Omaha, Nebraska.  It was several days full of educational research, best practices and new ideas for teaching physics – which I could go on and on about (but don’t worry – I won’t).  I do want to share something that stuck with me from one of the plenary talks.  Edward Prather, who teaches very large (1500+ students) interactive astronomy classes, was talking about how he can affect students’ lives through his astronomy course.

At the beginning of his talk he asked the audience how satisfied we are with society.  The choices (which we responded to with flash cards) were:

A. completely happy

B. fairly satisfied, but some things could be better

C. very unhappy – things need to change

D. suicide watch

Star-Forming Region LH 95 in the Large Magellanic Cloud

I imagine you can guess how the audience responded – I don’t think there was a single A in the room.  He reminded us that as educators, we have the opportunity to profoundly effect the lives of our students.  Edward is in the lucky position to teach Astronomy, a topic that almost everyone is interested in (as a result, he gets over 1000 students in one course!)  There is something about seeing pictures of the universe that really make you examine the life you lead.  But regardless of the field you teach in – you have the ability to shape the lives of hundreds of students each year! Teaching them to think for themselves, examine the facts, and push boundaries will results in well-rounded, intelligent citizens – the kind of people we want running our cities, financial institutions, hospitals and raising the next generation.

I can’t do his inspiring talk justice, but I left feeling empowered and it reminded me of why I wanted to teach in the first place.  And I hope this post prompts you to think about what, beyond the curriculum, you are teaching your students.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

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Gina is a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy where she studies quantum information processing at the Institute for Quantum Computing. Prior to her studies at UW she completed the Certificate of Advanced Studies in Mathematics (a course-based Master's program) at the University of Cambridge and she received her Bachelor's degree in Physics from the University of Winnipeg, which is located in her hometown. In addition to taking the Certificate in University Teaching at UW she has been a TA at the University of Winnipeg, a TA and guest lecturer at the University of Waterloo, and has taught MCAT preparatory courses for the past three years.

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