It’s a wonder that Pat Kohl ever ended up loving physics. My first few physics classes weren’t impressive, actually, they were a little dull. I wasn’t engaged, and the teachers were checked out, Kohl says of his undergraduate coursework. Eventually I found faculty who helped me and made it inspiring.
Inspiring is a fitting word, and plenty of students would use it to describe Kohl in his role as a teaching professor in the Department of Physics at Mines. He’s become kind of a rock star in using cutting-edge methods to teach physics garnering lots of attention for his classes known as studio physics, which transform traditional courses into a hands-on bonanza of learning.
When you listen to Kohl explain why he likes physics, it’s clear that he’s motivated. I really like that you can use math to model physical reality in a way that’s reliable, he says. You can sit down and write this system of equations that describes this thing that actually exists, and those predictions will be right down to one part in a million. The fact that that’s even possible just blows my mind.
Kohl became passionate about teaching while in graduate school. I worked as a teaching assistant and I started thinking about how students make sense of physics within the context of their curriculum. In 2004,he made physics education research the subject of his PhD thesis at University of Colorado Boulder. Since then, he has continually worked on tweaking his craft.
I’m a scientist by training. Science comes with the implicit assumption that you never really finish learning about anything and never really finish improving anything. I see no reason not to apply that attitude to education. If I ever stop considering different approaches to teaching physics, it’ll probably be time to retire.
Kohl says activities in his studio physics classes vary: You might see group problem-solving, hands-on investigations of physical phenomena using equipment, or formal lab experiments. The content isn’t necessarily different from what you’d find in a traditional physics course, but how the students interact with that content is very different, he says. Rather than listen to me describe content, students spend time interacting with the material directly in groups of their peers. The focus of the class shifts from the instructor to the student in a very real way.
The impact of Kohl’s teaching style is apparent in Daryl McPadden ’13, one of his former students. Studio physics was a great opportunity to actually try problems and get immediate feedback, McPadden says. There was a nice mixture of experiments with equipment and working through ideas. I remember learning, possibly more than I can put into words. Pat’s ability to teach goes beyond information transfer he taught us to think.
McPadden is now working on her PhD in physics with a focus on physics education research at Florida International University. I’m still learning to appreciate how much he did for me and my classmates during my time at Mines. I consider Pat a role model, and I want to be able to teach others the way that he taught me.
While teaching is Kohl’s first love, he dabbled in administration during the spring of 2015, serving as the interim director of the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Mines, the organization he helped found. We looked at ways to support the faculty, matching them with the right classroom space studio or lecture. The university of the future won’t have just one kind of classroom. Sure, there’ll always be lecture halls, but we’ll see more studio and workshop areas and students working with their hands in a technical way.
Kohl recently received an Alumni Teaching Award, which recognizes superior teaching skills at the undergraduate level. He’ll be back in the classroom in the fall and, not surprisingly, he says that’s where he feels his best. Working with the students is something I never get tired of.