Steven Manly, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy, was named New York State Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and their sponsor, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Manly’s initial reaction to the award was embarrassment. “You know, it’s not like there aren’t a lot of other people around doing the same things, so it’s embarrassing to be singled out,” he said.

Manly has taught one undergraduate class since coming to UR from Yale University in 1998.

“I requested [the general physics class] as part of the employment negotiations, because when you’re interviewing for a new job you have to ask for everything you think you might want, because it’s the only time you’ll ever have any real power. I asked for two things in particular: one is to teach pre-med general physics and the other was to have an office with a view on the quad… I thought it would be fun.”

The most successful part of Manly’s teaching style is how he divided the 150-plus General Physics class into smaller workshops for students to discuss the concepts among themselves and with more individualized instruction. This system was first suggested to Manly by a professor who used a similar system in a chemistry class, but it is modeled on how graduate students usually work. “This is largely what one does for survival in grad school. You simply start working with five or six of your friends and try to understand things better or you don’t survive,” Manly said.

Manly’s new approach takes into account that fact that most students in General Physics are not physics majors, but are chemistry or pre-med students taking the class as a requirement. The traditional “sink or swim” approach used to make things very difficult for students with little interest in physics, but the workshops have had much more success reaching them. “It’s a really good way to do it, if you can pull it off,” Manly said.””The hard part is implementation, because it requires a very different set-up, funding, and manpower than traditional classes.” But Manly thinks it is well worth the extra effort. Referring to an early, trial version of the system, he said, “I was so impressed with the difference it made for the students in the workshop part of the course. There was a statistically significant difference in their performance.”

In the past General Physics has received poor reviews on student evaluations. But Manly’s approach has worked so well that student evaluations became the highest ever for an introductory physics course. 80 of all students have credited the workshops as a major strength. Senior Jessica Cassavaugh, a biology major who took General Physics last year, liked the class. She said, “For physics, it was decent. I did actually learn a lot. It had visuals and projects and stuff so we could grasp it.”

General Physics is the only undergraduate class Manly has ever taught at UR, but he also teaches graduate seminars. His other work includes research into nuclear, gravitational, and high energy physics, most of which is carried out at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in Brookhaven, N.Y.

Manly doesn’t take a theoretical approach to teaching, so he’s always willing to try something new. “Some of the things I’ve tried have worked very well, and some absolutely flopped, and some were in the middle. There were some that worked from the student’s point of view but almost killed me personally.” For example, he once tried to organize and lead discussion groups about current events in science, but the only time available for students was at night, which was too hard for him to make.

Levesque can be reached at clevesque@campustimes.org.



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