Physics teacher caps career with national teaching award
He has shared his love of physics and of teaching with generations of students, teaching assistants and faculty members.
Now, the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) has awarded Department of Physics Senior Lecturer Emeritus David Harrison the 2012 CAP Medal for Excellence in Teaching Undergraduate Physics.
“It’s terrific to see David get this kind of recognition,” said department chair Michael Luke. “He has helped us revolutionize the way we teach introductory physics. He has been a tireless advocate of the introduction of evidence-based pedagogical techniques into the classroom and lab, and this medal is richly deserved.”
Harrison was cited for leadership and innovation in introducing research-based pedagogical techniques to his courses, and for significant contributions to both the on-line physics teaching community and the Ontario Association of Physics Teachers.
The award honours faculty members who have a deep understanding of their subject and possess an exceptional ability to communicate their knowledge in such a way as to lead their students to high academic achievement.
“I began as a teaching assistant in 1968 while a graduate student at U of T," said the recently retired Harrison. "In 1972, I gave up all my work with quarks so I could devote myself to figuring out how students learn.
“This, to me, is a much more interesting question than quarks, and has dominated my professional career ever since.”
Harrison played a key role in transforming the undergraduate physics teaching culture using new, evidence-based methodologies. He was the driving force behind the design and implementation of the Physics Practicals for first-year students in the department’s large introductory physics course. Replacing a one-hour weekly tutorial and three-hour bi-weekly lab session, the practical component of the course sees up to 36 students meet for two hours every week to work out concepts and experiments in groups of four in a face-to-face hands-on environment.
“Most students learn best by interacting with their peers, not by listening to some professor lecturing to them, and those interactions are most effective when they involve conceptually based activities, preferably involving real apparatus,” said Harrison. “These principles are at the heart of the learning that occurs in our Physics Practicals.”
Harrison has also played a leadership role in the design of innovative and rigorous TA training which, for the biggest course, involves a full day at the beginning of each term and two hours every week throughout the term.
In addition, the prize acknowledges Harrison’s long service to the physics teaching community through his computational tools, online notes and Flash demonstrations that provide very clear, easy-to-understand explanations of a wide variety of fundamental principles of physics.
Harrison will be presented with the award at the 2012 CAP Congress in Calgary later this month.