Letter to the Editor: ‘Students Have Concerns About Tandon Physics Department’

Lorcan Folan

Of course it is disappointing for the chair of a department to read a student’s complaints in a newspaper, but more importantly, the tone of your article sorely misses the exciting developments here — fueled by the education and scholarship opportunities that students encounter when they become part of a small but talented cohort of physicists-in-training at NYU Tandon.

With 46 undergraduates in our Applied Physics and Applied Physics-Mathematics programs, many students who pursue applied physics here find a tightly knit community of fellow students, dedicated faculty and resources that help them grow and blossom during their studies here and afterwards, in rewarding careers. One of the most valuable assets we offer to our majors is the opportunity to interact daily with engineers, thus to collaborate in some of the most interesting fields of science and engineering such as materials science, nanotechnology, energy and the intersection of physics and biotech. Taking these students under their wings, our highly qualified and dedicated faculty members have helped undergraduates pursue their passions either on site or through summer research programs sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.

Contrary to the mistaken claim made by the student in your article, the size and quality of our teaching labs are comparable to other schools’.  We would like to offer even more opportunities for research for undergraduates, but as with any department, we have finite resources. The speculation cited in your article about our professors’ teaching practices is simply not correct, and I wish I had been given the opportunity to refute these inaccuracies before they went to press. In addition, by not querying Tandon officials about the complaints that were printed, your reporter did not discover that our institution does indeed survey students about their experience and acts upon appropriate suggestions, whether they arise from this survey or from individuals throughout the year.

Note that word “appropriate.”One of the most troubling advocacies in your story came from someone misidentified as a student — he is an alumnus and was not a physics major — whose self-proclaimed practice of using another’s spreadsheet to save time is a blatant case of academic dishonesty, as outlined in the Student Code of Conduct. Nonetheless, students should know that we do indeed welcome constructive criticism and will continue to act upon it. As always, discussions should start with the faculty member or instructor, but there are others who can help if students wish to pursue further: the course coordinator/program director, the department head, the associate dean for academics and the associate dean for student affairs.

Sincerely,

Lorcan Folan, Chair of the NYU Tandon Department of Applied Physics

Note: Htoo Min, our reporter for the piece and deputy news editor, contacted Folan while writing the article and received the following unedited statement from him:

Our recitation classes are intended as review sessions for quiz and homework problems. Once new material is introduced in the lecture classes, students are expected to then apply what they have learned to solving their homework problems. After they’ve reviewed these in recitation, students are then given a quiz problem to allow them and their instructors to assess how well they have grasped the topic. So, the recitations provide an opportunity for students to clarify their understanding of the basic ideas, see how others — including their instructor — solved the problems they worked on, and apply what they have learned to solving the last pre-exam sample problem (i.e., the quiz) on the topic. It is not a lecture class “do over,” although the recitation instructor has latitude to reiterate difficult concepts, if the need arises. Each recitation instructor strives to be helpful to the group during the class period, and individually in the hallways and their offices, time allowing.

All our lecture, recitation and lab instructors are PhD-holding professional physicists. They are certainly all highly qualified and very capable. Each has their own teaching style, particular approach, etc. Our intention is to provide a range of styles and treatments, since experience has shown that there is no one “perfect” presentation that appeals to, and works equally well for, all of our students. A somewhat less popular presentation may be just what a particular subset of students need, and does not make that instructor “bad,” simply because he or she is reaching a different audience.  We do not force students to attend the lectures, but we do recommend it strongly. Our experience is that students who make the effort to go to class, try their homework, and attend their recitations, learn more and do much better than similarly prepared students who don’t.cIdeally, each student would find instructors that best match his or her needs, but scheduling and room size constraints can make this ideal unattainable. But we provide as wide a range of both lecture and recitation instructors as possible.

Since we have a number multi-section multi-instructor courses, we take great pains to ensure that grading is done uniformly across all sections. This is especially true in the lab courses.  Any specific concerns about inequities should be referred to the lab program director.  Some students seem to think that the data and uncertainty analysis activities in the CM and EG courses are all there is to learn about these things.  Actually, that is just the beginning.  We extend and provide mathematical rigor for these and other concepts mentioned in the EG and CM courses.  All courses at Tandon are vetted by the faculty, and all have been approved to be offered as they are being offered now.

The department faculty size is a function of the demand for our courses from majors and non-majors, and of the research and scholarship produced.  The applied physics department expects to thrive and flourish as the university investments in the campus and its faculty continue to bear fruit. We have recently hired a new full-time lecturer, and plan to expand the faculty as demand and resources allow.

His quote was removed during the editing process while trying to fit it for print, so the following passage should have been included at the end of the article online and has now been amended:

Folan said that the department faculty’s size and intellectual diversity are a testament to the variety of research and scholarship it produced. And this non-uniformity brings diversity to teaching methods, which simply means they employ different teaching techniques.

“All our lecture, recitation and lab instructors are Ph.D.-holding professional physicists,” Folan said. “The applied physics department expects to thrive and flourish as the university investments in the campus and its faculty continue to bear fruit. We have recently hired a new full-time lecturer and plan to expand the faculty as demand and resources allow.”

Email Lorcan Folan at [email protected]

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