This year’s Adjunct Professor of the Year, Kevin Murphy, believes if you set clear expectations for students, they will rise to meet them.
“As long as you’re an advocate for the students and are not their adversary, they’ll do wonders for you,” Murphy said. “Being passionate about what you do and encouraging them has worked for me for three decades.”
Murphy teaches Mechanics, Heat and Sound (PHY-150) and Descriptive Astronomy (PHS-103), where he uses his 30 years of teaching experience, previous work at observatories around the country and connections with world-renowned astrophysicists to make his classes relevant and interesting.
He finds teaching these courses presents different challenges.
“I joke there’s been nothing new in undergraduate physics in over 100 years. I liken teaching it to being a Broadway performer. How excited can you be on your 500th performance of ‘Cats?’ But you’ve got to do it because people paid to come see you. My students come to me, and my job is to help them be successful and make it as entertaining as possible,” Murphy said.
One way he has done this is by creating videos his students can use while working on problems.
“If I’m doing a problem at the board, a third of the students know how to do it, and they’re bored. A third are following along, and a third are lost but are not going to raise their hand, so I’ve semi-flipped my class,” he explained. “I’ve made videos where I solve the problem, so they can try it out, and if they get stuck, they can watch the video and pause it when they need to. Rather than me just covering material and giving them homework problems to practice, they do a lot of practice ahead of time on more basic problems, and we spend time in class working on higher-order problems.”
On the other hand, Murphy noted that astronomy is constantly transforming.
“By next spring, I’m going to have to rewrite probably 50% of the curriculum because of the new James Webb Space Telescope that was launched [by NASA]. I also need to revise my lecture on the Milky Way because the prevailing wisdom was that it was between 10 and 12 billion years old. The newest studies seem to show it’s nearly as old as the universe. Things are always changing in astronomy,” he said.
The technology available for student use also has progressed, and Murphy’s students have the opportunity to access world-class telescopes in places such as Chile, Europe and Canada.
“They have a special log-in account, and I teach them how to control the telescopes. They can take an image of what they see and download it. They collect the data like a real astronomer. It’s very authentic,” Murphy said.
He knows his students won’t always have a telescope available, so he teaches them things they can do on their own.
“We work on a lot of naked-eye observations – meteor showers or where the moon will be. Hopefully, after my course, students can identify four or five constellations. I always joke with them that ‘You point to three stars and give them the correct names and your friends and family will think you’re a genius.’”
Murphy said he hopes his winning this award reflects well on his department.
“The faculty and administration are a fantastic group of people – always friendly and happy to help. The college is very transparent and communicates clear expectations,” he said. “I did tell my wife I feel a little affirmation because after doing something for so long, I wonder if I’m out of touch. I know I can’t tell some of my jokes because they’re really old, and I think they border on ‘dad jokes’ now. I have to be careful because I don’t want to be seen as too uncool.”