Nature is more than just beauty, Ronald Smith demonstrates in his classroom

Ronald B. Smith, the Damon Wells Professor of Geology and Geophysics and professor of mechanical engineering, is this year’s recipient of the Harwood F. Byrnes/Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize.
Ronald B. Smith has learned firsthand that events such as hurricanes and thunderstorms are more than just mysterious occurrences.
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Ronald B. Smith has learned firsthand that events such as hurricanes and thunderstorms are more than just mysterious occurrences.

The Damon Wells Professor of Geology and Geophysics and professor of mechanical engineering, Smith has flown in an airplane through all kinds and speeds of wind, studying the details of such atmospheric conditions.

He tells his students that as mysterious as nature can be, it is within their power to understand it scientifically, and to do so is an exciting adventure.

In recognition of his enthusiasm for teaching science, Smith is this year’s recipient of the Harwood F. Byrnes/Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize (see “Six faculty members are honored with Yale College Teaching Prizes”). He recently spoke with YaleNews about his teaching at Yale. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

What do you most enjoy about teaching at Yale?

I enjoy teaching at Yale primarily because of the type of students we get here. Yale students are very ambitious. They do their work; they are interested; they respond to the ideas that you put before them. That’s the thing that perhaps has allowed me to change as a teacher: getting all that feedback from the students.

If they weren’t doing the work or they weren’t interested or they weren’t ambitious, then teaching would be kind of a one-way enterprise, where I’d be talking to them and that would be the end of the story. But Yale students talk back, and so over the years I’ve learned a bit from them about what makes sense, what they’re interested in, and what’s important. Their feedback has been essential for that and it all comes from their attitude of wanting to learn.

What have your students taught you?

I think my students have taught me how to form a logical argument. I’ve also learned that students learn in different ways. Some students have one channel where they learn, but other students have a different channel. Over the years I’ve learned how to put things in a way that different students can understand. So this goes beyond just teaching: It’s how people understand new material or new things. Students, in the way they learn or fail to learn, have taught me how to present ideas in a way that is understandable to people. That’s something you just learn from teaching; there’s no book that can do that. You have to teach and get feedback from students.

Do you have a teacher who particularly inspired you?

I’ve had good teachers over the years. I think, though, that [my own interest in science] goes back to high school. I had a teacher whose name I’ve forgotten, but I’ll never forget him because he was a good physics teacher. One day he asked me if I would help set up some in-class demonstrations, getting things cooking on the tabletop, some physics experiments, and I was totally into that. At the end of that semester I was in love with physics simply because he gave me that chance to show what I could do.

But more than that, he set up things that everybody could identify with. So today, I try to do that in my teaching. I like nothing better than to set up some crazy desktop experiment. In my introductory course I set up a cloud in a chamber. I love that, and students love that.

When I first came to Yale in this department, Brian Skinner was teaching his introductory course and doing that in a very successful way. So I didn’t take courses from him but I used to peek in on his lectures and see what he did, and that was an inspiration, too. So a lot of people have contributed to my teaching.

If there is one thing you want your students to learn, what would it be?

I want my students to have the feeling that understanding nature is within their grasp. I think for many people, nature is out there and they enjoy it and value it, but they don’t think they could ever understand it. I want my students to know that they can understand nature.

I tell my students that there are three ways they can learn to understand nature. When they are out of doors —instead of just putting in their iPod when they are walking down the street — look around. Look at the clouds, the atmosphere. See which way the wind is blowing; see what the water is doing if you are by the shore. Develop that habit of observation. When you are flying, get a window seat. Look out the window. So observe, observe, observe.

The second thing is to quantify.  Don’t just take what you observe as some beautiful phenomena but try to imagine: Is it important? Is it less important? How much water is evaporating? How strong is the wind blowing? What fraction of the sky is covered by clouds? Try to make it a bit of a quantified experience.

And the third one is to try to ask “why.” Why does that phenomena happen? Why is that cloud there? Why is the wind today blowing from the west, but yesterday it was blowing from the south? So if they could learn to observe, to quantify and to ask why, then I’d be successful as a teacher.

Do you have memorable classroom moment you’d like to share?

Years and years ago I had an experience that sticks with me. It has to do, again, with the different way students learn. I had a student attend my class who had no sight, and like most of us, I imagined that visual learning is the main way we learn things. But this young woman ended up being the number-one student in my class that year and had no sight. And so that taught me something. There are many ways we learn, and the way you and I learn may not be the way someone else learns.

I still remember being sort of shocked at that and made the mistake perhaps of wondering whether the student could do that work, but of course she had been through this before. She knew she could do the work, and after a few weeks I knew she could do the work, too. But it took me a little time to realize someone could learn in a different way.

I had students work on weather maps, and she did that with Braille. In class, she had no trouble whatsoever. I could show a movie, and she would understand what was going on better than other kids!

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