Wednesday, June 13, 2012

CAP Medal Excellence Teaching to David Harrison

Dr. David Harrison, a Senior Lecturer Emeritus at the University of Toronto, was named this year's recipient of the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) Medal for Excellence in Teaching.  On June 12, 2012 he was presented with the medal at the CAP Congress being held at the University of Calgary. At the same meeting he gave an invited address entitled "My 'Aha!' Moment".

The citation for the medal from a press release issued by the CAP reads in part "Dr. David Harrison, University of Toronto, for his dedication to transforming the undergraduate physics teaching culture, especially in his design and implementation of the new Physics Practicals in Toronto, for his relentless pursuit of improved teaching using new, evidence-based teaching methodologies, for his leadership role in the design of innovative and rigorous TA training and for his long service to the physics teaching community through his computational tools, online notes and Flash demonstrations."

David Harrison has taught at University of Toronto for many years, and was instrumental in the redesign of the first year physics experience (the University of Toronto Physics Practicals).  He is also well known nationally and beyond for computer assisted instruction, web based physics documents, and for various research evidence supported active learning techniques.

He is a major contributor to the University of Toronto Physics Virtual Bookshelf, a rich array of publicly available articles on physics, the history of physics, demonstrations, and physics education research. Readers of this site will be interested in a document he posted in 2010 on an introduction to physics education research.

At the UPSCALE (Undergraduate Physics Students' Computing and Learning Environment) site you can find links to his Flash animations, the virtual bookshelf and materials on the practicals. For an overview of the Physics Practicals go directly to this link.  An image of students in the learning space is provided here courtesy of the University of Toronto.

Dr. Harrison won the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations Award for Outstanding Contributions to University Teaching in 1976, and he was been selected six times from 1991 to 2008 for the University of Toronto Dean's Excellence Award.

In his concise, entertaining and inspirational presentation at the CAP Congress on June 12 Dr. Harrison considered the reasons why most physicists still use traditional teaching methods even though a majority are at least somewhat familiar with the physics education research literature favouring interactive methods.  While there may be practical implementation roadblocks in some cases, his thesis is that most physicists learn in ways not typical of most students in physics classes.  The modes of learning that work for us, do not work well for most students. He urged us to follow what educational literature and evidence shows, and use active learning techniques.

He did mention that there anecdotal, and some statistical, evidence that more interactive techniques of learning physics while demonstrably more effective for student learning sometimes lead to lower student ratings of the quality of instruction.  This does not seem to be universally the case however; for example the University of Calgary provided statistics in a workshop on June 13 that showed improvements in student ratings when interactive labtorials were introduced.

In an informal conversation at the CAP Congress I asked Dr. Harrison what was his most important contribution over his long and distinguished career.  He cited the development of the Physics Practicals without a doubt, noting the engaged, productive, and rich learning environment.

The Medal for Excellence in Teaching is awarded annually. Last year's winner was Dr. Joanne O'Meara of the University of Guelph.  Please consider submitting nominations to CAP for the 2013 medal.