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Joe Burns has appreciated the opportunity that teaching has provided him to interact with talented students and to influence their views of the physical world. "I have learned that sometimes, when attempting to present simple answers to questions in simplest terms, my understanding of technical material is challenged," he says. "This helps me improve my own comprehension of what is essential."
Students' abilities and interests vary widely, especially in required undergraduate courses, and that can be difficult, says Burns. "This makes it hard to appeal to all," he says. "It can be a problem to find the balance between challenging students versus putting too much pressure on them."
Burns strives for a certain level of informality in his classes as a way to break down barriers so he can share his passion for the subject matter. "I seek to be engaged, enthusiastic, and energetic," he says. "I want students of all abilities to recognize that science is fun, nature is beautiful, and mathematics is remarkably descriptive of the world. I hope to encourage curiosity and wonder about everyday phenomena, and to recall the history of my subjects."
A little show-and-tell can help engage students, says Burns. "I bring lots of toys and demonstrations to class, in order to illustrate phenomena that the class is discussing," he says. "I attempt to tie our subject matter to every-day phenomena or topics in today's news."
Burns wants his students to take away from his classes the notion that the world can be understood, if one looks at problems in the correct way. And that they should never stop being skeptical of accepted answers. "One should always question results, whether from a textbook, Wikipedia, or even their professor" he says.
When it comes to math, Burns teaches that elegance is better than intricacy. "I believe that simple, understandable answers are almost always preferred to complex ones where you 'show your stuff,'" he says.
When students have difficulty grasping concepts, Burns assures them they are not alone. "I recount my own history where I struggled as an undergraduate—even in some of the courses that I'm now teaching!—because of laziness, my attempt to be "cool" and my fear of appearing stupid by seeking help," he says.