Reflections on Physics 132 Spring ’22 Part I – Updates on the use of TAs in large-enrollment Introductory Physics for Life Sciences courses

Another semester is in the bag, and, if all goes according to plan, this will be the last time I teach physics 132 for quite a while. As such, I think a deep reflection on the semester is particularly warranted. While some changes/additions such as a fully remote option, there were several attributes added or revamped for this semester’s course. These, and existing features, all need consideration for their successes and areas for improvement. This is the first post in a series taking that deep dive into reflecting on Physics 132 Spring 22.

The teaching of large enrollment courses is always a team effort: requiring not only the instructor but also support staff such as lecture prep as well as both graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs). During the Spring 2022 semester, Physics 132 had two graduate and seven undergraduate TAs. In order to optimally support student learning, I feel that, as leader of this team, my critical roles include: forming a team with diverse experiences and knowledge; leveraging each team member’s unique knowledge, skills, and perspective; promoting a culture wherein each TA feels their expertise is acknowledged; ensuring everyone feels comfortable in their role and empowered to do their best to support students.

 A successful TA team begins at its formation. When I started at UMass in 2015, I used graduate TAs exclusively as that was my prior experience. As time went on, and the level support I felt was necessary increased, I began to hire undergraduate TAs to help fill the gaps using exclusively upper-division physics majors. This preference for physics majors was not carefully considered. I am somewhat ashamed to admit this preference arose from a sort of “physics chauvinism.” I assumed that majors in their third and fourth years, with their presumably deeper knowledge of the content, would make the best TAs.

I have since discovered what, in retrospect, should have been obvious: that a more diverse teaching team that mixes in life-science majors who had previously been successful in the class was superior. While my assumption regarding the deeper knowledge of upper-division physics majors has turned out to be true, life-science majors bring several other important attributes which strengthen the team as a whole.  

The undergraduate Physics 132 alums not only bring their valuable perspective as former students in the course to the TA role, but also their life science knowledge and disciplinary mode of thinking are useful to share with the physicists on the team. Physics 132 is very much an introductory physics for life sciences course. In addition to biological applications sprinkled throughout the material, each unit has a central biologically- or chemically-authentic motivating context [link to talk]. Having biologists on the teaching team can help make these examples more authentic and can ensure that I am using the language with which my life-science students will be familiar. For example, I was using the term van der Waals interactions. However, thanks to my undergraduate TAs, I learned that the term London dispersion forces is more common. Thus, I switched to primarily using London dispersion forces while still mentioning van der Waals for those who may be more familiar with that term.

To further empower my team members, I adopted a new format for my weekly team meetings taken wholesale from Prof. Guy Blaylock in our department. In past semesters, I struggled with promoting engagement during these planning and preparation sessions. TAs would often remain quiet while I presented information about upcoming topics and would even remain reticent when I explicitly solicited their feedback on student challenges they had observed. Prof. Blaylock’s practice for these meetings involves assigning one teaching team member each week to present on the upcoming material with an emphasis on the particular challenges that they think students might face along with suggestions on how they themselves learned the material. To ensure that the presenting member was fully prepared for this role, they were notified a week in advance and had access to the prior semester’s materials.

This meeting format has, in my opinion, been a wildly successful switch. All my TAs were more engaged throughout the meeting process – not just when it was their turn to present. These presentations resulted in more feedback from the TAs on student difficulties, their own struggles with the material. I feel that giving officially dedicated space for TA insights gave them all permission to contribute as full members of the teaching team.

My role in these discussions was often became that of “translator:” explaining biological concepts to the physicist members of the teaching team and physics concepts to the biologists. This role forced me to grapple more deeply with the disciplinary differences between biology and physics resulting in, I feel, a better understanding for myself and thus a better course.

These observations are not just my own. The TAs themselves shared similar opinions in an end-of-semester evaluation of me. In the words of one TA, “I thought the structure of the team meetings each week was quite beneficial. Specifically, having each TA lead a brief discussion on the current and/or upcoming topic being taught in class often provided the rest of the team with tips on how to explain concepts students often struggle with using different approaches and perspectives that are conducive to a more wholesome understanding. Overall, the team meetings were more involved than those I attended the previous semester, which I felt made a difference in the way I engaged with students taking the course both during class and in the physics help room; there were numerous times were I employed suggestions taken from the team meetings and found that the concepts clicked with students after doing so.”

Beyond ensuring that the TAs were prepared for the material, I feel that giving the TAs the potential for ownership helped them feel more comfortable sharing other challenges with me. For example, two young women on my teaching team were comfortable enough to share some personal difficulties they were having with some students in the help room. I am very glad that I was able to create a sufficiently trusting environment that these two young women felt comfortable sharing this with me and that we were able to work together to find a solution to address the issue.   The fundamental philosophy of these meetings is, I think, beneficial to leadership in general: allow the team to have a substantial and empowered leadership role (as opposed to simply explaining their importance as I used to do). While I know that this is not at all a new idea, as a faculty member moving in to more roles of leadership, such insights are of critical importance. Perhaps a similar philosophy could be, at least partially, implemented in 691G?

Full hybrid here we come!

As mentioned in a previous post, UMass recently dropped its mask mandate. My goal is, as always, to have as many students feel comfortable in my class as possible. In this case, that means offering a way for those who may not wish (for whatever reason) to be in a large class of unmasked folks to participate. As such, I have finally taken the plunge to offer a fully hybrid option for Physics 132 for the second half of the semester. Students will now be able to participate in one of three ways:

  1. Attend class in the “old-school” way.
  2. Engage asynchronously via watching recordings of class which have been chunked into smaller pieces by my undergraduate video editor.
  3. Attend class remotely and synchronously via Zoom.

We will see how this goes!

End of Mask Mandate at UMass Amherst

Earlier this week, the faculty, staff, and students at UMass, received notification about the end of the indoor mask mandate. I am not here to discuss the validity of this decision; frankly as I am not a epidemiologist or related scientist, I do not feel qualified to make such a decision. What I think is important is that this moment had to come, and no matter when it came, there was going to be a subset of the population who would not be ready. Moreover, I do not feel it is my role to comment on folks’ motivations for not being ready: their reasons are their own. What I want to reflect on is the more practical: this happened, what can we, as instructors do about it?

Here is what I did, there is no claim that this was the best course of action, but I figured I would share in case it helps others. If someone reading this has my email and would like to provide feedback, I welcome it.

My goal is for as many students in my class to be as comfortable as possible – not an easy task in a room of 300 people. What I said was (working from memory),

“I want y’all to know that I found out at the same time as you did – I was not keeping information about the relaxation of the mask mandate from you. Moreover, I am not a epidemiologist or public health professional. I am trained as a particle physicist. Thus, I do not really feel qualified to have an opinion on whether this is the right decision at this time or not.

Regardless, this is the state we are in. My goal is for as many folks in this class to be as comfortable as possible. If you are not ready to not wear a mask in here, I will support you. If you want to take yours off, there are experts who suggest that is a reasonable thing to do. As part of making as many people comfortable working with me as possible, I will continue to wear one in class.

If you would like to move to a remote mode of delivery for this class, that is an option for you. Even if you signed up to have an attendance commitment, I am perfectly willing to remove this for you under these circumstances. Just let me know.

I have also decided that I will use the upcoming spring break to incorporate a synchronous remote option for students who are not comfortable in a large lecture hall under the new circumstances. I have been playing with this idea, but these new circumstances have forced the issue. I will make notes here going forward about how I accomplished this and how it goes.

Reflections on Back to In-Person Instruction and the Importance of Breaking Expectations

Last week, on September 1st, UMass Amherst resumed in-person instruction for the Fall 2021 semester. While I, of course, had some trepidation about having 300 people in a large lecture hall with the Delta-variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus circulating widely, I cannot describe how happy I am to return to the classroom. In addition, the restoration of in-person instruction after such a long hiatus offers new opportunities for what I consider to be one of the most important goals of the first few meetings of any course: breaking expectations.

Continue reading “Reflections on Back to In-Person Instruction and the Importance of Breaking Expectations”

A Review of Mask Types for Sound Quality

The University of Massachusetts Amherst has instituted a mask mandate for the start of the Fall 2021 Semester. The mandate goes into effect today (August 11th) and will be reviewed in mid-September. During this mandate, masks will be required in all public indoor spaces which includes faculty members who are actively teaching. Making sure that you are clear in speech is critical, particularly in large lecture halls. To that end, Heath Hatch and I did some tests on various types of masks. I am posting the results here for folks’ reference.

Overview of the Mask Types

Mask #1: A Simple Cloth Mask

This is a simple cloth mask. I like these for simple around-town use as I find them comfortable and, due to their crush-ability, easy to carry around.

Video overview of the simple cloth mask.


  • Comfortable (at least for me).
  • Easy to breathe.
  • Easy to wash.


  • Falls off your face when talking!
  • Some people find the closeness to the face uncomfortable.
  • Only one layer of fabric.

Mask #2: A More Elaborate Cloth Mask

This mask has two thinner layers and a metal piece for the nose.

An overview of the more sophisticated cloth mask.


  • Stays on face while lecturing.
  • Comfortable.
  • Easy to breathe.
  • Multiple fabric layers.


None really.

Mask #3: A Cone-Style KN95

This is cone-shaped KN95 mask. The particular brand (no brand endorsement implied) is Bio-th which was permitted under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization.

Overview of cone-style KN95.


  • Stays on face while lecturing.
  • Stays away from face while talking, making articulation easier.
  • Easy to breathe.
  • Tight seal.
  • Kn95 by FDA EUA.
  • Folding makes it easy to carry.


  • The tight seal makes it a bit of a jaw workout to talk. Your jaw will be tired by the end of the day at first.

Review of Sound Quality

A large lecture hall that provides the teaching environment for P132

We tested the masks in the empty Hasbrouck 20 lecture hall. The lecture hall has a concrete roof and floor with brick walls and hard-plastic chairs resulting in a lot of echo. Given that the room was empty, we are not sure that the results will be representative when the room is full, but we cannot find that out until the students come back!

The sound checks for the different mask styles.

Summary and Recommendation

My Pick: Mask #3 – A Cone-Style KN95

This particular mask was the overall winner. The mask stayed on while speaking and the cone shape resulted in the clearest voice while using a microphone in the empty Hasbrouck 20.

Mask #1, the simple cloth mask kept slipping off the nose while talking and Mask #2, the more sophisticated cloth mask, had noticeably muffled sound quality.

Future work and mask equity

The opacity of the mask results in students obtaining less information because they cannot see the instructor’s lips. This is particularly true for Deaf and other students with hearing difficulties. I plan to try a mask with a clear window in the future to see if this feature works and its impact on sound quality.