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Early Career Teaching Award spotlight: Q & A with astronomer Mike Reid

“There's nothing better than seeing students tap into their curiosity about the cosmos and use it to power personal development”

“My favourite thing of all is when students come to see me in my office with some burning question,” says Mike Reid

Mike Reid serves as coordinator of public outreach and education at the prestigious Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics. He’s also a lecturer at U of T – where he quickly makes an impression on undergraduates.

“Mike conveys the sort of enthusiasm you dream about from all teachers,” said Jesse Hildebrand, a recent U of T alumnus and founder of Science Literacy Week. “He shares many inspiring opportunities, such as looking through a telescope at the rings of Saturn. My favourite university experiences happened in his class.”  
 
Reid is one of four teaching leaders receiving the first-ever University of Toronto Early Career Teaching Awards this year. They are:
 
Michael Reid, lecturer, department of astronomy and astrophysics, Faculty of Arts & Science

U of T News will be running features on each of the winners, who are set to receive their certificates at the University of Toronto Excellence in Teaching Reception on Tuesday, November 3rd from 5:00pm-7:00pm in the Common Room at Massey College.

In this first instalment, Reid talks about his love of “highly engaged” teaching and solving problems with his students.


 
What drew you to teaching?
Students! I first became interested in teaching when I was an undergraduate. I deeply loved learning about physics and I realized that by explaining it others as a teaching assistant, I learned it better myself. As a junior graduate student, I did planetarium shows and realized that I liked talking to people about science as much as I liked actually doing science. In the first year of my PhD, I was given permission to teach an introductory astronomy course. I loved talking to students and seeing them light up as they discovered that astronomers can literally look back in time, or that the atoms in their bodies come from the explosions of dying stars, or even just that something as ordinary as a spring can be understood in a simple, elegant way.
 
What do you love most about it?
I love students who are curious about the world they live in and things beyond their daily experience. My favourite thing of all is when students come to see me in my office with some burning question. I had a student a few years ago and right from day one she would come to me after every class, and in nearly every office hour, with questions that went way, way beyond the scope of the course. You could see her brain was just lit up with curiosity, with a need to learn. She was a first-year non-science major, but she would really challenge me. I would have to race home at night and read up to be ready for her questions the next day. Sometimes she still stumped me because she would press right up to the frontier of our understanding of the cosmos.
 
For me, there's nothing better than seeing students tap into their curiosity about the cosmos and use it to power personal development.
 
How would you describe your teaching style?
I aim for what I call "highly engaged" teaching. To me, the way we conventionally approach education is very strange. We would never think of training students to swim, play music, or speak French by having them sit in a classroom and watch videos of swimmers, musicians, or French speakers. So why do we think we can teach them astronomy, economics, or linguistics by making them passively watch someone talk about those subjects? For the majority of students, learning entails doing.
 
When I was an undergraduate, I watched professors copy notes from their notebooks onto the board, and then I copied them into my notebooks. I learned nearly nothing that way. The real learning happened later, when I camped out in the lounge with my classmates and did problem after problem, running upstairs to ask professors for help when we got stuck. I try to replicate that experience. I ask students to do the readings on their own time and then, in class, I explain the hard stuff, they ask questions, and we solve problems together.
 
Why is integrating research and teaching important?
I'm not just teaching astronomy that's written in the textbook, I'm teaching the work my colleagues and I are doing right now – about papers published last week, about the discoveries we are on the cusp of making. I think that goes a long way to motivating students to learn: they want to know the things they are learning have relevance right now, that they are being prepared to understand and shape the world of today, not the way it was when the textbook was written.
 
What have you learned from your students?
More than I can hope to summarize. But I can start with patience, gratitude, and the love of learning.
 
Why have you chosen to teach at U of T? 
I'll be honest: teaching at U of T is intense. There are overwhelming numbers of students and never a moment's rest during the semester. But there are a lot of things I love that I haven't encountered elsewhere. The first is the variety of opportunities. When I need help with some new innovation I want to implement, there are people I can turn to. If I need funding to study better teaching methods, there is funding. If I need inspiration on how to teach better, I have no shortage of role models.
 
On top of all of that, I love the diversity of the students. Their diversity, in terms of interests, aptitudes, cultures, religions, languages, and attitudes makes for a really lively, stimulating environment. When a student walks through my door during office hours, I never know who I am about to meet!