Teaching Excellence Awards

 Year Awarded: 2017

Faculty Award winner

Josh Colwell

 College of Sciences


I joined UCF after 17 years at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where I was a Research Scientist. There, I took every opportunity to teach, though teaching was outside my normal duties. My love of teaching was my primary motivation for moving to UCF.

My emphasis is on the fundamental concepts rather than rote problem-solving. Physics education research has shown that even students with high grades have very low understanding of the physics concepts after the course if they have been taught in a traditional lecture style with emphasis on formulaic problem solving. Instead they are simply learning pattern matching in problem solving. My emphasis on concepts improves student outcomes. I have brought new techniques to the classroom to keep students engaged in the large lecture environment. I use a dedicated phone number to allow students to send me questions during lecture by text message. Physics is an empirical science, but too often it can seem academic and abstract, especially to non-majors. I do demonstrations every day of class in both Physics 1 and Physics 2 to make the material more relatable. I’ve been using the Learning Catalytics bring-your-own-device system in place of clickers for the last two and a half years. This system allows more open-ended questions to be asked and allows me to group students with each other for discussion based on their responses. This facilitates peer-instruction, and also keeps class lively and engaging.

My desire to make physics and quantitative reasoning more accessible led me to create the new course, “Energy and the Environment”. This introductory-level survey course covers the fundamentals of physics using the practical and relatable problem of generation, conversion and storage of energy, and the impacts on the environment of different modes of energy usage.

I try to get students active, hands-on experience as much as possible. To that end I have mentored undergraduate students and included them in papers, conferences, and NASA flight experiments. Some have gotten to fly on NASA’s parabolic flight experiments (the infamous “vomit comet”), while others are designing and building experiments for flight to the space station and on a variety of suborbital rockets.

I meet all my students, even when teaching a several-hundred-student section, and I learn new things from them every term and try to use the insights I gain from them to improve the learning experience for the next course.