Mats A. Selen: The physics of change

Sometimes the most mundane changes can unleash innovation and creativity, says a University of Illinois physics professor. Here's what happened when his department changed how it teaches introductory courses.

Mats SelenMats A. Selen is an international leader in experimental particle physics. But he wasn’t talking about physics recently in an appearance at Duke University.

Instead, the University of Illinois physics professor was lecturing about changes his department made 17 years ago in the way it teaches introductory physics classes.

“It sounds boring, but it was huge,” Selen said.

Rather than letting professors design and create their own introductory courses, the department took over the classes, creating a defined course, and having professors all teach essentially the same curriculum.

As simple as that sounds, it was a major challenge to a very entrenched way of doing things, both at Illinois and at many other universities, Selen said. But it yielded great results, unleashing creativity and innovation.

The key, he said, was having good leadership and “a critical mass of people who were willing to play.”

Selen has a B.S. and an M.Sc. in physics from the University of Guelph and an M.A. and Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University.

While at Duke, Selen spoke with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Seventeen years ago, the physics department at the University of Illinois changed how it teaches physics. Tell us about that.

Yes, we changed the way we organized our undergraduate classes. It sounds boring, but it was huge.

Traditionally in large departments, somebody is given a teaching assignment. They say, “Here, you’re teaching ‘Intro Mechanics’ this semester,” and you go make up the course.

You would say, “OK, I’m going to use this book, and I’m going to teach this today and I’ll teach this other thing tomorrow, and I’ll have to create the class as I go, and I have to manage all the teaching assistants, and I have to make the exams.”

It’s a very big job, and it’s different every semester, because different professors will do different things. So the students have different experiences, depending on who’s teaching it. Some may have a great experience, and some will have a horrible experience, but it won’t be the same. And the students were basically unhappy.

This was the case at Illinois. It was different every semester. It was hard to do a good job teaching in these giant classes.

So the department decided that we were going to do it differently.

The department said, “We’re going to take over these courses and own them. So now when you’re teaching in these classes, we’re going to hand you the material and you are going to be the steward of this course for a year or two. You can make little changes, but you can’t change the basic course.”

Q: Before, in these introductory classes, professors pretty much created their own course?

Right. And professors resisted this new approach. They said, “I don’t want somebody telling me how to teach my class.”

But [under the new system] it was much better. It was like night and day. The quality of the course was better, the students were happier, and the faculty were much happier, because they didn’t have to do all that work.

That was the big change, and we managed to pull it off.

We got faculty to buy in little by little, even the people that originally said, “No, I never will teach this way. It’s against my grain to be told what to do.”

You know. That’s faculty, right?

But they realized, “I can still put my stamp on it by making little tweaks, and I don’t have to spend 23 hours a day preparing for class. I can still do my research. I can talk to my graduate students, and then I can go teach.”

It was a real win-win situation.

Q: Why is that so innovative?

I love that you’re asking that, because it implies that it’s a no-brainer, right? It’s like, “Well, of course. Why wouldn’t you do this?”

But the reason is because it’s not the way it was.

Think about this. Professors have been around for a thousand years. For a long, long time, people have dressed in robes and professed, right?

And it was always this idea that the person doing that was the professor. Everybody gathers around, and they pay the professor for teaching them.

I’m not saying this is how it should be, but there is a long history of having that person be the center of the course and being in charge of the course and doing it their way.

It’s just the way it works at universities.

So this notion that suddenly you’re going to teach this class that you didn’t make, that some other person made, is hard. And it was a real tough sell for us to our faculty at first.

Some people said, “I don’t want to do this,” and some people said, “I’ll give it a shot.”

The younger people who we just hired said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” They didn’t know any better.

But after a while, people started to see, “Hmm, Mary over there seems to have a lot of time in her lab. Isn’t she teaching mechanics this semester?”

Yeah, she is, but with the new way they’re doing it, she still has time for her lab.

“Oh, really? Hmm, maybe I should do that.”

So it caught on.

And now, after a bit of a struggle for the first few years, it’s become the culture of our department. I think now the entire department is very proud of the way these courses are run. Everybody’s completely on board.

So it’s very innovative.

Q: What were the biggest challenges in changing a very established and entrenched way of doing things?

I was a young assistant professor when our associate head, who led this reform, started to do it this way. I was one of those guys who said, “Oh, this is great,” and so I’ve been doing it ever since. Nobody had to convince me.

But when I look back at what he did, his genius was to have a critical mass of people who were willing to play, and to stick to it. And I guess he probably knew that if you just wait them out, the other people will come around. That’s basically what happened.

We had enough people at the beginning that we could run the courses, and then little by little we brought new people in. And some of the people who had said they would never do this gave it a try.

Q: What difference has this change made? I gather it has freed up faculty in all kinds of ways.

Yeah. It means since you don’t have to create the whole course, you save time. If you’re a new assistant professor whose job it is to set up a lab and write research grants and start graduate students, now you have time to do that, even though you’re teaching.

And the same for older faculty. You have extra time. What I do with it now is I worry about better ways of teaching.

So you can use that time to try to improve the courses or you can use that time to do your own research.

But the point is, no matter who teaches the courses, whether it’s somebody who does research in education like I do now or somebody who’s a field theorist who worries about 10-dimensional strings, the students get the same thing.

We found also that if we get the young faculty into these intro courses right at the beginning and show them the sort of pedagogy that works for teaching -- techniques like getting students to interact as peers and talk about a question and then give you feedback, and then having students think about things before they come into class and things like that -- they’ll use those in their advanced classes after they learn to do them teaching intro classes.

It’s elevated the teaching in all the classes in our department to have these young people come in and get trained so they understand the pedagogy that really works for teaching, and then they just carry that with them when they go teach other stuff.

Q: What are the lessons for any organization or group that wants to make fundamental changes?

Leadership is the key. You have to have good leadership.

The reason it worked for us was that the head of the department was on board, and people all the way down from the head to associate head to the soldiers on the ground were all like-minded. There was this vertical structure of people who were thinking the same thing. And once you have that structure in place, people feel safe.

As a brand-new assistant professor, I didn’t have to feel like, “This is going to hurt my chances of getting tenure,” because the department head told me to do it, right?

The department head can’t just tell people to do things. But if he has some loyal soldiers in the trenches who agree with him, then he knows that his vision can be implemented.

You need great leadership, but you also need both top-down and bottom-up to agree.

That core of support is necessary. You need people to feel safe. You don’t want people to feel like they’re sticking their neck out and risking their careers.

If your department head tells you on the first day as an assistant professor, “Dude, you've got to get your research going. Don’t worry about teaching; that’s not what’s going to get you tenure” -- and that happens at some places -- that makes it a lot harder for you to participate in something like this.

Even though you know it’s the right thing to do, you’re not going to feel comfortable doing it, because your department head said it’s going to hurt you. Everybody has to feel like they’re doing something that’s valued all the way up.