Voices of Experience: Ralph Llewelyn

Photo of Ralph Llewellyn Ralph Llewellyn is a Professor in the Department of Physics. He received his B.S. degree from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. from Purdue University. Before coming to UCF as the first dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, he chaired the Physics Department at Indiana State University and was Executive Secretary of the Board on Energy Studies of the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council. His current research area is radioactivity in meteorites and space artifacts.

1. What are some of your best strategies for encouraging students to stay engaged?

I use a lot of demonstrations in both lower and upper division classes. Some are simple and others require complex, commercially available stuff. When teaching modern physics, I use a historical context; for example, in nuclear physics, we talk about the discovery of fission"first explained by a female physicist, Lise Meitner, while she was walking in the woods with her nephew. A vision came into her head of how fission occurred. At one point a group of theater students here at UCF created several short vignettes of historical events in physics, e.g., the trial of Galileo and the discovery of electron spin, and presented these as little "playlets" for my students in the modern physics class. In general education courses, a colleague, Costas Efthimiou, developed the "Physics in Film" concept, where we use film clips from popular movies in class to illustrate physical principles. The idea is to get students engaged because they"re interested in the films, but also to make them think critically about things that happen out there in the world. They can be entertained without being misled.

2. What should instructors be doing more of (or less of) than we already are?

We need to get better at teaching students how to solve problems. Physics is a problem solving, experimental discipline. As a matter of fact, living out in the world is a problem solving, experimental discipline! It helps us live better to be able to solve problems. The concept many students have of solving a problem is shuffling through the book until they find the equation that looks right and then start putting the numbers in it. And that"s not solving a problem. They need to know how to state and analyze problems and how to solve them. One thing all students need is an understanding of the scientific method. We don"t have to call it by that name, but they need to understand what"s involved in actually proving something is or is not correct.

3. How does your research inform your teaching?

I"m an experimental nuclear physicist. Our search for radioactivity in lunar materials, meteorites, and other extraterrestrial objects focuses on aluminum 26, which is present in the near earth atmosphere but shouldn"t be there. Why is it there? The answer has to be in some cosmological event that occurred some time in the past. When I"m teaching modern physics, we make the connection of nuclear physics to what goes on outside the earth"s narrow confines.

4. How can we make the biggest difference in the lives of our students?

I think we do it all the time, and it"s not a deliberate thing. Teacher Christa McAuliffe, who was a crew member on the Space Shuttle Challenger, was asked how she fit into space exploration. Her reply was "I touch the future. I teach." That"s what we do. We touch the Future. We teach.

5. Why did you become a university professor?

I started out as a chemical engineer. Once I had time to fill before my first appointment with my graduate program advisor and wandered into the nearby Physics Building. It was a Saturday afternoon and the building was pretty quiet. There was a man sitting there working in an office at the far end of a dim corridor. We sat down and talked for a long time. He eventually offered to convert my assistantship from chemical engineering to physics. Later, as a graduate student, I had him as a professor for quantum mechanics and he was fantastic. I just thought, "I"d like to be like that!" So here I am.


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