Fairfield professor who plays trumpet, guitar to explain physics named Teacher of the Year


A Fairfield University physics professor who plays her trumpet and guitar in class to explain the principles of physics has been named Teacher of the Year by Alpha Sigma Nu, the national honor society of Jesuit colleges and universities. Dr. Nancy Haegel, associate professor of physics, will be presented with an award by the graduating members of the honor society at the senior-faculty brunch on Wednesday, May 14. In addition, the Rev. Richard Stanley, S.J., assistant chaplain in Campus Ministry, will be inducted into Alpha Sigma Nu as an honorary member during a ceremony on Oct. 19.

"As often as possible I try to illustrate the concepts we are discussing, taking everything into class from my guitar and trumpet to the ultrasound pictures of my baby," said Dr. Haegel. "I believe that students benefit from solving problems together, so we work in small groups at least once a week. I also believe, especially in the general physics classes, that students already know more physics than they think. So, part of the challenge is getting them to make the connections between what we discuss in class and what they experience every time they walk across the room, make a piece of toast or turn on their computers."

Dr. Haegel teaches General Physics for the Life and Health Sciences, Solid State Physics, and Advanced Experimental Physics. She also has taught Thermodynamics, a seminar in the Honors Program, and this fall will team teach a core course in science with Dr. Gita Rajan, assistant professor of English, entitled "History and Culture of Science: Questions of Power."

To illustrate the principles of frequency, intensity, and wavelength in a unit on the physics of sound, she strums the guitar and plays the trumpet. "To explain how instruments work, we look at the frets of guitars and the valves on a trumpet, and then play a brief tune on both at the end. I played trumpet in the marching band in college. It's another example where a picture - or a demonstration - is often worth a thousand words."

In addition to the musical instruments, she uses racquetballs, Slinkys, liquid nitrogen and superconductors, and balloons to engage her students. "You can demonstrate a lot of physics with simple, everyday things," she said.

To explain the concept of special relativity, she uses examples such as the "Twin Paradox" which theorizes that one sibling who travels in space at high speed will age more slowly than the earth-bound sibling. In addition, to demonstrate the idea of the vastness of space, students in her classes calculated that the appearance of a supernova seen in the sky in 1987 actually occurred 175,000 years ago. "Our experience is not always what it seems," she said.

Dr. Haegel said a significant amount of teaching occurs in the laboratory as well as the classroom. "Especially for the physics majors, it is very valuable when they are able to participate in research projects. Because of the often collaborative and team nature of scientific research, I have never seen a division between my teaching and my research. The challenges, the problem solving and the creativity involved in seeing a research problem through are invaluable for students. At the same time, I value their insights and efforts and their contributions as colleagues to our work - junior colleagues for now, and professional colleagues in the years ahead."

Dr. Haegel tries to have fun in class to overcome the impressions and stereotypes among students of science as inaccessible. "Some expect to be turned off by the terminology of mathematics. Mathematics or equations are just another way to express ideas. Real understanding and retention comes when students put ideas and equations together."

Dr. Haegel said the most satisfying part of teaching is when students start to regard themselves as scientists, and working with them toward shared goals. "It's exciting when students understand the material; you see it in their faces. With physics majors, seeing them become colleagues is very rewarding."

She finds physics intriguing - "It's a job where you're working on new problems and constantly on the edge of new questions" - and that enthusiasm has obviously rubbed off on her students. In nominating Dr. Haegel, they wrote that she is "approachable ... makes physics learnable and fun ... an excellent speaker, teacher and person ... one of the most dedicated teachers."

Dr. Haegel left UCLA where she was a tenured professor to join the Fairfield faculty in 1993 because of the unique opportunity to pursue her research in an environment conducive to teaching. In her career, she has published 68 papers and edited a book on electrical behavior of semiconductors. With the help of three undergraduate assistants at Fairfield, she has been conducting research on semiconductor materials for use in electrical and optical applications, specifically on how materials absorb and emit light.

The results of their ongoing research have included developing the first comprehensive model for the transient response for infrared photoconductors. "This will allow astronomers to develop detectors that operate more quickly, which saves valuable observing time on space-based satellites," she said. "We have also been successful in using the scanning electron microscope to image electric fields near contacts on semiconductors, which is important for understanding the behavior of very small semiconductor detectors, since the contacts play a larger and larger role as the device gets smaller and smaller."

Dr. Haegel said the other reason she enjoys teaching at Fairfield is that she believes in the Jesuit mission. "I believe in an integrated approach to teaching, encouraging the intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth of my students. I try to model that integrated approach by my own questions and style of teaching."

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

Posted on April 1, 1997