Virginia Tech Teacher of the Week
The Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research (CIDER) recognizes Duncan Farrah, assistant professor of Physics, for facilitating a teaching environment that fosters independent inquiry and lively creativity as hallmarks of the learning experience; and fosters discovery through drawing on multiple narrative threads, both within the discipline and from related fields.
Two complementary approaches to instruction:
At the advanced level: proposed, developed and taught two 4000/5000 level astrophysics courses. These courses currently comprise the entire advanced undergraduate and graduate astrophysics program. One course on Cosmology, the other on the dynamics of galaxies. Approach at this level is to build a framework of unusually high intellectual rigor for courses at this level, but woven through with copious real-world examples from the beginning, designed to foster cognition through both qualitative and quantitative approaches. SPOT scores for these courses have been consistently above 5.0
At the freshman level: revised and taught the 1055 introduction to astronomy course, to a class of 630 students in one section. Introduced two structural pedagogical changes. First, included classes on the evolution of symbolic narratives across cultural landscapes, with emphasis on how cultures used such narratives to construct frameworks from within which they understood the world around them. This was to tackle the often superficially addressed “science vs spirituality” debate in a way that students would find both intellectually rigorous and non confrontational. This was done via consultation with a professor of cultural anthropology at Cal State Northridge. Second, to tackle the problem of so many people in such a large room, I used several approaches to make the learning space seem smaller and more intimate. These included coaligned but separate verbal and textual narratives and a small amount of “stagecraft” via consulting with colleagues in Theater Arts here at VT.
A student quote from SPOT evaluation.
"I met with Professor Farrah several times one on one through the semester and he's 100% why I will pass this class -- and not just pass, do reasonably well. I have dyscalculia, and I am an art student. Science/math? Very far from my thing. When I met with him, he explained the material in an understandable and approachable way. I went from being a nervous wreck, to just a little scared. I became interested enough in astronomy that it has started to bleed into my art. Without Professor Farrah I would have never discovered this interest and passion inside of myself."