My best semester yet
Yesterday was the last official day of summer term, and I find myself reflecting on it. I can't help but conclude that Summer 2016 was my best semester yet as an instructor, and the summer term isn't even a full semester.
I worked really hard the past two months teaching Physics 100, a general survey class about physics. Granted it's not that hard to teach; I am an engineer, after all. But it took a lot of work to improve upon the class so that my students could have the best experience possible. I was offered to teach the class when the person who normally teaches it had other plans for the summer, and the department chair thought of me. I guess voluntarily submitting the course curriculum guides and syllabi for three engineering classes that the school is not offering but should caught his attention.
The lecture slides as left to me were all PDFs, which of itself would not have been a problem if the lectures themselves could keep the interest of the average student. The problem was they were focused almost exclusively on lecturing. There's no way that would satisfy for the 3-hour class times the summer term demanded. I had to develop in-class activities and demonstrations to keep the students interested and engaged. And because the lecture slides I had received were all PDFs, I couldn't just slip in a few slides here and there with the activities on them; I had to develop my own slide decks from scratch.
In addition, the labs were in great need of improvement. One was missing from the manual, so I had to develop that one on my own from scratch using only materials that were already had in store. I also developed two new labs from scratch. One of these labs was a simple experiment involving temperatures probes and rulers of different materials in melting ice. The student learn about rates of heat transfer at the same time they learn about the nature of temperature during changes of state. And yes, I said changes of state, not changes of phase. Don't get me started on my tirade about the diminished view of physicists when compared to metallurgists in this regard. I let others believe what they want, but to me solids, liquids, and gases will always be states of matter, and not phases. I'm too much of a metallurgist ever to adopt the physicist's convention.
Because each lecture covered a whole week during the normal semester and class sessions were two days apart each week, I was kept very busy trying to implement my vision for improving the class. I had to compromise in some regards due to time and manpower constraints, but that just gives me ways to improve the class further if I ever get to teach it again. And I hope that I do because, as much work and late nights as I put into improving the class, I really loved being in the classroom and the lab helping my students to learn more about the physical world around us all.
And as everything was winding down, I got some great comments from my students. They were so great, I got their permission to share them. What I have here is a sampling, but reading the praise from my students makes all the late nights worthwhile and together with the pleasure I experience while administering the course confirms that my career move in this direction is the right one for me to make.
In addition, one of my students approached me after class and said that he wanted to transfer to my alma mater and study materials science and engineering so he could follow in my footsteps. I can't begin to describe how gratifying that made me feel. I want to inspire and to educate the next generation of engineers, so getting feedback like that is what I live for.
Overall, I feel amazingly blessed that I had the opportunity to teach physics this past summer. It was a rush in multiple ways, but I thoroughly enjoyed every moment I spent with my students. Now I will need to get ready for the upcoming fall semester, which starts in three weeks. I'll be teaching my first online class as well as a special section of a first-semester college skills class that will include a study of engineering failures and their connections to other facets of life like business, politics, history, and literature. I'll be sure to post more about these classes as time goes on. For now, I'm really grateful for the summer teaching experience I've had and look forward to even better days yet to come.
Today I decided to celebrate Independence Day by visiting the graves of two patriots. This wasn't really planned on my part; the idea just came to me suddenly, and I went with it.
The first grave I visited was that of Ezra Taft Benson, US Secretary of Agriculture during the Eisenhower Administration and 13th President of the LDS Church. Let me say at the outset that I certainly don't believe in everything he did. For example, he supported the John Birch Society, a group which in his day saw Communist infiltration and conspiracy in everything. They also opposed the civil rights movement. I'm not on board with that. But I do admire Benson's passion for freedom and liberty, and it was that admiration that brought me to his grave site on Independence Day.
Regarding his passion for freedom and liberty, I have two favorite stories. The first was when he was asked by President-elect Eisenhower to serve in his administration as Secretary of Agriculture. Initially, Benson was reluctant, citing other important responsibilities in his life. But then Eisenhower looked at him and said, "You cannot refuse to serve your country." Benson's patriotism was such that he conceded and served the public interest as best he could. Four years later when Eisenhower won re-election, the same scene played out. "You cannot refuse to serve your country." Benson served four more years.
It was during his service as Secretary of Agriculture that one day Eisenhower asked him to host Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev as an official state visitor. Benson found no pleasure in the assignment but complied all the same. They discussed agricultural issues, but at one point Khrushchev said to Benson, "You Americans are so gullible. One day your grandchildren will live under communism." Benson assured him that he would do all in his power to ensure that didn't happen. Khrushchev responded that, no, America would not swallow communism whole. But fed small, incremental bites of socialism, one day the people would wake up and realize that they are in fact living under communism.
Looking at all the changes that have taken place since that moment some 60-70 years ago, I have to agree with Khrushchev. We've taken incremental bites of socialism to the point where many people now believe that the government must do some things for people, that promoting the general welfare of the public means that the government must dictate what people can and cannot do. My political philosophy has evolved over the past 25 years and continues to do so, but I'm just too libertarian ever to believe that. As long as I'm not bothering anyone or violating anyone's rights, leave me alone to do as I choose. I see the role of government as ensuring not equality of outcome but only equality of opportunity through the protection of civil liberties. On that point Benson and I are agreed.
His grave is located in the rural community where he was born in 1899 --- Whitney, Idaho, located just a few miles north of Utah's Cache Valley. I got a little lost looking for the cemetery because it's on a side street located off the main road. Fortunately, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye as I passed by the local church house. When I drove back to investigate, it turned out to be the sign for the cemetery.
The cemetery itself is really small (no surprise there). Benson's grave is located on the north side. The entrance is on the south side, so I drove around the periphery a little until I found it. Then I saw it.
Here is a view looking south from the gravestone towards US Highway 89, which is not that far from the cemetery.
Here is a view looking directly at the front of the gravestone. Note the "decorations" left behind on the grave. Benson's grave is on the left in this photo, and the wife's is on the right.
Being a good aspiring family historian, I took a photo of the back side of the gravestone.
I also took closer photos of the top portions of the gravestone. What might the significance of the coins be?
The photos laying in front of the gravestone were also interesting. The tribute left on his grave I found particularly interesting. I wondered what the author meant by sharing that Benson was "abandoned by those who should have been his friends." In what way was he abandoned? Is this a reference to those who simply shared different political views? I found it curious that the tribute contains no byline.
After a brief moment of reflection, I determined to leave. It was then that I saw an old pickup truck enter the cemetery, and I distinctly felt that the driver wasn't here to visit a particular grave. My visit was concluded anyway, so away in my car I went and headed towards home.
As I made my way there, an idea for another impromptu visit came to me, and I determined to follow it. I decided to visit Uncle Darrel. Darrel Curtis was really my grandfather's uncle, the brother to his father, but I always called him Uncle Darrel because that's what my dad called him. Just before he died he lived just around the corner from where my folks lived, so I knew him personally through visits I occasionally made in his home. He served in the Coast Guard during WWII, but he rarely spoke his experiences then, especially the ones related to the battle scenes he witnessed.
His grave is located at the Idaho State Veteran's Cemetery. Whoever takes care of this place does a really good job of it.
Not that it matters all that much, but I really like that Uncle Darrel's grave is at the end of a row --- the end of the fourth row from the front actually. It just makes his marker that much easier to find. And yes, I took front and back photos of the marker.
After a moment of reflection at his grave site and whispering aloud that he was still remembered, I decided to spend a moment by some of the other markers pictured earlier. There I read the words of the Gettysburg Address imprinted on a plaque there and could not help but feel how appropriate those words are, not just for the day itself but for the time in history in which we find ourselves now.
I left with a renewed sense of appreciation for the freedoms I enjoy today and for those who went before me to preserve those freedoms. Lincoln's words are so fitting --- "that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion." May we always be grateful for the freedom we enjoy.
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