Fairfield University Physics instructor Michael Brienza named Teacher of the Year


Image: Michael BrienzaIt's almost painful for some of Dr. Michael Brienza's students to admit how much they enjoyed a physics course.

As a professor of physics at Fairfield University who, along with regular physics courses, teaches core courses, Dr. Brienza is accustomed to having students in class who are there for only one reason: to fulfill their science requirement and move on. But as one student put it in an essay nominating Dr. Brienza for Teacher of the Year, his courses aren't the customary treks through arcane formulas and stultifying lab experiments.

"This is no ordinary physics class," wrote sophomore Mary Vingelen, in her nomination form. "I have learned more about life and myself because of Dr. Mike. He urges us to 'be passionate about something, and don't do anything if you're not passionate about it.' He teaches us not to take anything for granted, and to do our best at everything we do. Dr. Mike is an extraordinary teacher, mentor and friend, and I am a better person because I have had the wonderful opportunity to get to know him."

Commendations such as those earned Fairfield-resident Michael Brienza, Ph.D., visiting instructor in Physics, the title of Fairfield University 2004 Teacher of the Year, which was conferred by a committee of students in Alpha Sigma Nu, the Jesuit Honor Society.

"I am just so thrilled that the people I serve, and I mean that very sincerely, tell me I'm doing a good job," Dr. Brienza said.

Father Charles Allen, S.J., moderator of Alpha Sigma Nu (who oversees the committee), said he was extremely impressed by the amount of time and effort which the Alpha Sigma Nu Selection Committee gave to choosing this year's Teacher of the Year. "There were a number of faculty members who received multiple votes from the student body and the Committee considered many excellent candidates before choosing Dr. Brienza," Fr. Allen said.

Making physics agreeable has been Dr. Brienza's goal ever since he began teaching at Fairfield University in 1995. His method is to incorporate real-world applications, many from his own career, for the physics principles he teaches.

Last year, concerned that the physics experiments in the curriculum "were about as interesting as watching grass grow," Dr. Brienza and colleagues Nancy Haegel, Ph.D., a former professor of physics at Fairfield University, and Olivia Harriott, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology at the University, redesigned the physics curriculum to base much of the learning and experiments on human physiology.

"Did you know that the brain uses a tremendous amount of its computing power just to keep you erect? It interprets messages from the ears about balance, and all in all keeps this tall, awkward body balancing on two relatively small feet. We have students measure parts of the body, and learn about stability, forces and torques. We use headphones to demonstrate how the ears locate sound and determine where it comes from. In the lab, we have students measure their own eyes and write a prescription for themselves." The point, he says, is not just to make the learning fun. "I want them to see that it's relevant," he says.

Indeed, Dr. Brienza stresses the relevance of physics to a variety of careers in the everyday world. His own background helps. Dr. Brienza holds a BS and Ph.D. in physics from the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Brienza has worked in a variety of industries, from aerospace to the sewing machine business, and holds 29 patents in everything from lasers to sewing machines to radar.

"Michael Brienza is truly to be admired. His enthusiasm for physics and the care and dedication he has for his students are exceptional," said Orin Grossman, Ph.D., academic vice president of Fairfield University. "I am delighted that he is being recognized by Fairfield's students as Teacher of the Year."

Just prior to joining Fairfield he worked for nine years at Norden Systems, then a division of United Technologies Corp., where he started as a program manager/engineering manager of a project and moved on to broader management positions, culminating in director of business development.

He believes that an understanding of physics is beneficial to a variety of professions, from finance to marketing, and of course, other sciences.

"Creativity and innovation occur at the interfaces of technologies," Dr. Brienza said. "We are bordering on a bio-physics/bio-chemistry interface that's going to be phenomenal. The days of pure science are over."

It is that balance between pure science and broader skill development that guides Dr. Brienza's teaching philosophy. He knows that while students will likely forget memorized formulas, they will retain the processes they learned for how to think about a problem when they are presented with new challenges throughout their careers and lives.

"We're not here to teach you to solve old problems," Dr. Brienza said. "Our job here is to turn out a well-rounded and well-developed person."

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on May 17, 2004

Vol. 36, No. 284