Physicist flips the classroom
Since 1966, the Silver Circle Award has been presented to some of UIC’s best teachers. Winners, who are honored at their college commencements, receive $500 and their names join a long list of distinguished colleagues. But what makes the award especially meaningful is its selection committee: the graduating seniors.
Andrew Tillotson began his career teaching physics at a Chicago high school where he got to know each student. It was a big change when he joined UIC in 2008, teaching as many as 100 students each class in a large lecture hall.
“It felt like there was this invisible wall between me and them, and I was up here doing this performance,” said Tillotson, clinical assistant professor of physics. “That’s why what I’ve been going after is getting the students involved.”
Most students in his Physics 107 course are planning careers in the health sciences. “They’re usually not super excited to have to take physics to begin with,” he says. “Right out of the gate, you have a challenge trying to get their attention.”
So Tillotson “flips the classroom.” Students read course materials and watch videos of him lecturing outside of class. Class time is for active learning. Tillotson uses Learning Catalytics, which lets student answer questions, draw graphs or make sketches with their smartphones or laptops during class.
“It really gets students involved without forcing them to raise their hand,” he says.
Tillotson, who also runs a research lab on physics education, is honored to win the Silver Circle — especially since most of his students are not physics majors.
“For a student to reflect back on their entire experience at UIC and remember me and say, ‘That guy helped,’ is an honor,” he says.
Tillotson’s advice to graduating students: plan for the future.
“Don’t just expect things to happen,” he said. “Come up with a goal first. Once you have a goal in mind, the plan can come from that.”