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Communicating scientific concepts

By Karin Dienst

Princeton NJ -- A fourth-year doctoral candidate in physics from São Paulo, Brazil, Pedro Goldbaum has tuned his teaching skills to connect with students in a variety of learning situations at Princeton. His talents as a teacher are perhaps most called on when running a problem session into the small hours for the course known affectionately as “Death Mechanics.”

Doctoral student Pedro Goldbaum stresses the importance of tailoring instruction to the range of students in his classes — from physics majors to other science majors to non-science majors.

Stating as a goal his intention to “make students enthusiastic about physics and mathematics,” Goldbaum appreciates the awe “Death Mechanics” — which is really called “Classical Mechanics” — can inspire in students. He explains that it is probably considered one of the “hardest” courses offered by the University because “it is the first time sophomores encounter a more sophisticated mathematical formalism applied to physics, as well as concepts in physics not usually explored at any level during their high school education.” For those students “up to the challenge and interested in theoretical physics,” Goldbaum said he strongly recommends the course.

Over the past three years, Goldbaum has served as a teaching assistant for four courses: “Introductory Physics,” “Contemporary Physics,” “Classical Mechanics,” and “Quantum Mechanics.” His responsibilities have included teaching lab classes, running problem sessions and holding office hours for sophomores.

Goldbaum said one of his main challenges is targeting his teaching to the range of students who attend these classes, including physics majors; pre-meds and other science majors, who typically take the introductory courses; and non-physics majors, who tend to take the contemporary physics course.

“Physics majors have interests that are similar to mine, so I don’t need any special preparation to keep them motivated,” said Goldbaum. “But when I am teaching students who are essentially fulfilling a requirement, I try to stimulate their participation by making them aware of real-life applications of what we are studying,” he said. For example, during a lab on optics, which has approximately 20 students, Goldbaum will point out the many connections between optical instruments and the human eye, thereby engaging those students interested in medicine and human biology.

Motivation is clearly a factor when teaching difficult-to-grasp material that demands working through a great number of problem sets, which are major components of the classical and quantum mechanics courses. Goldbaum has found that the best way to help students get comfortable with such material is to put in the time it takes to work through it, and to encourage students — usually 30 a session — to collaborate in small groups. This necessarily gives rise to late nights in Jadwin Hall — sometimes to 3 a.m. — with Goldbaum breaking up the stream of problem sets with informal conversations.

“Pedro is generous with his time, and genuinely interested in communicating concepts and skills to his students,” said physics professor Chiara Nappi. “Students can count on him being able to resolve the most difficult physics problems in the most elegant and simple way. At the same time, he has the patience to sit with those who do not quite get it at the first hint, and help them through the process of learning.”

According to physics chair Daniel Marlow, the department helps prepare its teaching assistants by enrolling them in a mini-course run by the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, which includes extra sessions specifically designed for physics teachers. He emphasizes that the mentoring process of graduate students by faculty members provides the backbone of support for new teachers, and may include weekly meetings to discuss the progress of the larger courses, or numerous informal opportunities for consultation.

For Goldbaum, whose research focuses on mathematical physics, having Elliott Lieb, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics and professor of mathematical physics, as a mentor has been instrumental in his evolution as both a researcher and a teacher.

“In regard to teaching, the most important thing I learned from Elliott is how to combine precise mathematical formalism with a good amount of intuition when explaining more advanced material,” said Goldbaum.

He also says his teaching has benefited from the examples of Marlow, Nappi and their physics colleagues Curtis Callan and Cristiano Galbiati.

This year Goldbaum is focusing on his research, which concerns the mathematical analysis of quantum-mechanical systems, through funding provided by the Charlotte Elizabeth Procter Fellowship. After earning his Ph.D. he will join McKinsey & Co. as a consultant.