An Experimentalist Turned Educator

May 14, 2012

GW Professor Gerald Feldman works to improve physics education here and across the country.

By Ari Massefski, Class of 2015

When Gerald Feldman was 8 years old, he decided that he wanted to study nuclear physics. He had just read the book “Atoms in the Family” by Laura Fermi, wife of renowned physicist Enrico Fermi – whose work helped lead to the development of the atomic bomb – and it showed him what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

“It’s not like I like to blow things up,” said Dr. Feldman, professor of physics in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. “But reading this book turned me on to physics. I always knew that I wanted to do this.”

Originally from Philadelphia, Dr. Feldman attended the University of Pennsylvania, followed by graduate school at the University of Washington, where he earned a Ph.D. in physics. He spent time on the research staff at the University of Saskatchewan before joining the faculty of the George Washington University in 1996. In 2010, he earned the position of full professor at GW.

During the 1990s and the 2000s, Dr. Feldman worked closely with Cornelius Bennhold, former chairman of the physics department, to improve the quality of physics education at GW. He introduced the university to Turning Point clickers, handheld devices carried by each student in a classroom to submit answers to professors’ questions in real time.

“It was a way of engaging the students during the lecture,” he said. “You get to talk to your neighbor and really think about things while the class is going on.”

Dr. Feldman also brought the idea of SCALE-UP courses to GW. A SCALE-UP class, or Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs, creates a collaborative learning environment designed to be interactive, as opposed to a typical lecture format.

“The idea was very simple: If you can have an engaging lab setting with 20 people, why can’t you extend it to a large enrollment class?” said Dr. Feldman.

Since bringing the idea to GW’s campus, Dr. Feldman has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to research improvements to the SCALE-UP program. He says SCALE-UP requires students to do more hands-on activities, which might mean more work, but in the end provides a greater learning experience for students.

“We aim to take novice untrained physics students and move them closer and closer to the level of an expert,” said Dr. Feldman. “You have to come prepared to work, but if you put in 120 percent compared with your friends in a regular lecture class, you will get out 150 percent.”

Last fall, Dr. Feldman introduced an alternative course at GW called “Physics for Future Presidents.” This course, which satisfies Columbian College students’ general curriculum requirements in natural sciences, presents important scientific issues to politically minded students in an easy-to-understand manner.

“The idea was that future leaders should have the capacity to know some basic science and to do some simple math,” said Dr. Feldman. “The first try in the fall went well, and we’re planning to do it again this fall.”

Harold Griesshammer, associate professor of physics, said that Dr. Feldman’s experiments continue to break new ground. What makes Dr. Feldman’s work unique, said Dr. Griesshammer, is his use of theory in both planning and analyzing his experiments.

“His activities push a number of theoretical developments. It's this close symbiosis of experiment and theory that drives progress in nuclear physics,” he said.

In addition to his work at GW, Dr. Feldman has also been asked to join the Advanced Placement Test Development Committee to help revamp the AP physics exam. He said he is proud to have developed a reputation in the field that leads to requests for assistance on such projects.

Clarke Smith, a senior studying physics in Columbian College, has had Dr. Feldman as a professor and adviser, and he is currently a teaching assistant in one of Dr. Feldman’s classes.

“I am eternally grateful that he is my adviser,” said Mr. Smith. “He’s so committed to my education and to learning in an honest way with no shortcuts.”

Mr. Smith said that Dr. Feldman goes out of his way to help his students.

“He’s extremely accessible and honest,” said Mr. Smith. “He’s very easy to talk to, and he doesn’t like to blow anyone off. I think that’s a rare quality in professors, but he exemplifies it.”

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