Category Archives: science

Zen of Teaching Interview with Trace Jordan

[NYU, June 2012]

Like with previous interviews, the awesome Gabriela Rivera Torrado has carefully reviewed the video and summarized its most important points here.

Trace Jordan is a scientist and distinguished professor at New York University (NYU). He is also associate director of the Morse Academic Plan (named after famed inventor of the telegraph and code), NYU’s general education curriculum. For close to the past 15 years, Jordan has been working with the Foundations of Scientific Inquiry aspect of the plan, focusing on a core curriculum in math, science and lab development for the university’s general/liberal arts program. Said program consists of a varied curriculum, including a three part component, with emphasis on quantitative reasoning, natural sciences and life sciences. At the core of this academic plan is the goal of helping non-science students become scientifically literate, to train them to think like scientists, use scientific methods and be able to understand social and ethical  issues of the day.

The classroom of today finds itself at a crossroads, between the classic lecture style used by our teachers and our teacher’s teachers, and the possibilities offered through the integration of tools and technologies that surround us. When dealing with the barrage of media that students are faced with on a daily basis, Jordan believes faculty members are usually divided into three camps. There are those who just don’t deal with it (they choose to accept that students might be texting in class and just ignore things like this), those who completely ban it and the brave few who choose to accept the presence of technology (“it is what it is”) and integrate it as part of the course. Jordan makes emphasis on the importance of having the students be fully present in the classroom, and personally prefers a “lids down”/no cell phone policy during most of his courses (except for taking notes). He suggests that modelling may play an important factor in teaching students the appropriate context for the use of these technologies (who hasn’t seen a professional texting during a meeting or conference?), and that adults should explain etiquette boundaries for things such as texting and surfing the Web.

As an ambassador of sorts for the scientific community in a liberal arts environment, Jordan admits that he has faced certain prejudices towards science from the students. Many students are weary of science, thinking it may be “boring”, “irrelevant” or “hard”. Some are under the impression it’s just about fact memorization and unfortunately, many suffer from “math phobia”. The NYU professor finds it absurd how it can be be seemingly culturally acceptable to basically say “Sorry! I don’t do math!” but in his own words, you can’t say “No! (sorry) I don’t do reading!”.

When asked if he thinks the NYU program is changing preconceptions and opening the minds of students towards science, the professor (who also performs as social director) thinks they are doing a “pretty good job” and that course evaluations have been for the most part positive. Jordan agrees that teachers in the field do have a responsibility to help promote the study of science amongst students.

A potential roadblock to innovation in science education is the adaptability of its faculty. Jordan recognizes this as “a big issue” where the availability of published works don’t even help much. He finds that it’s important to always understand where your average professor is coming from. The professor finds that pioneers in education may have trouble sharing and diffusing helpful ideas, and not due to the invalidity of their methods or theories, but due to sheer lack of awareness from most faculty. When it comes down to it most are overworked and simply too busy, between “teaching, research and grant writing”. Jordan suggests the idea of educational sabbaticals for faculty that is open to furthering their knowledge yet simply lack the time to do so, also dividing the material into “bite sized chunks” in order not to overwhelm.

Above all, in order to progress, Jordan emphasizes the importance of person to person relationships in aiding with cooperation between faculty members. For example, during the interview, Jordan mentioned that, even just “having a beer” with them outside of the work environment can help build these relationships. We each need to take the first step in helping each other and giving a even small amount of your most valuable resource, your time, can have the greatest impact of all.