I opened my Ph.D. dissertation with a quote from Ayn Rand: “An inventor is a man who asks ‘Why?’ of the universe and lets nothing stand between the answer and his mind.” The human mind has incredible capabilities. One hundred years ago, Bohr used a classical model to describe the atom. Ten years later, the ideas of Bohr, Born, Heisenberg, Planck, de Broglie, Schrodinger, Einstein and others combined into quantum mechanics, the system we use to describe subatomic interactions today. We now understand so much about quantum mechanics that we can develop marvels like the Large Hadron Collider. Such scientific accomplishments are possible because people endeavor to understand the fundamental science behind the natural world and use it to make their world better. I seek an academic career because I am driven by that precise desire. Additionally, I see much potential in students’ minds. There is little more rewarding than helping a student understand a fundamental piece of the physical world and thinking about how that understanding will empower her.
Possibly the greatest key to successful scientific discovery is mastery of fundamental science. Going back to the previous example, many people use quantum mechanics every day, but those who truly understand it are those conceiving the world's Large Hadron Colliders. I believe many students have this potential. I thus believe re-inforcing fundamental understanding through education, practice, and analysis is key to learning in science and engineering.
I believe mastery occurs outside of the classroom. Educators provide students with the resources they need, but students master concepts through practice and analytical thinking. Research-based learning is an excellent method for providing these opportunities to students of all levels. It is particularly effective because students can progress at individual rates, each student taking time to carefully think through the fundamentals most intriguing to her. Research-based learning is much like the process of writing a Ph.D. dissertation: Novice students pick apart fundamentals and reproduce known results, advanced students apply fundamentals to problems and make discoveries, and masters use discoveries to solve problems. Research groups are collaborative: advanced students and masters re-inforce their knowledge by educating novices.
Research-based learning is also applicable in the classroom. Students apply theories learned in class to hands-on problems. An effective way to engage students is to let them work on self-directed design projects. Giving students freedom to choose their projects allows them to work on problems that interest them. Students likely work much more diligently on interesting problems. The ultimate goal is still mastery of fundamentals, but it is difficult to achieve in a semester, particularly since students are often novices. Improving understanding catalyzes mastery and is an excellent course goal.
In research-based learning, teachers act as mentors, teaching fundamental concepts, challenging results, and guiding students to ask the right questions to solve a problem. Additionally, they determine how to unlock students’ desires to understand. Society is comprised of billions of unique individuals, which makes it great, but also difficult for teachers trying to impact many students at once. One way to motivate learning is to challenge students to understand their individual learning styles. I became a much more effective learner when I discovered how I learn: read to near saturation, practice, fail, learn, try again, fail, learn, … Before I learned that, I often had trouble moving to the practice stage. I am now a master of myself, which makes tackling problems much more enjoyable. Masters enjoy not only what they learn but also how they learn it.
Teachers have a lot of responsibilities: engaging students, encouraging fundamental understanding, promoting application of fundamentals to societally relevant problems, guiding students toward mastery, rewarding success, and continually learning. My desires to understand and promote understanding in others have led me to seek an academic career.