Last month, Community Classroom unveiled the winner of the Best. Teacher. Ever! Contest: Negussie Tirfessa, Ph.D., Professor of Physics, Manchester Community College. As a followup, we asked Independent Lens viewer Cordelia Vahadji to interview her nominee, so that we could discover what makes this educator so inspirational to his students, and that physics is fun.
Dr. Tirfessa was born in Ethiopia. He received a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Physics at Addis Ababa University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He taught Physics at the same university for six years and came to the U.S. to study at Ohio State University in 1995. Dr. Tirfessa graduated with Ph.D. degree in Theoretical Nuclear Physics in 2001 and joined MCC as an instructor of Physics in January 2002. He currently lives in Manchester, CT with his wife and two children.
Cordelia Vahadji attended Smith College, majoring in biology. She completed internships at Smith, Yale, Princeton, the NIH, and the Association for Women in Science, as well as an NSF teaching fellowship. She worked as a molecular biologist at Johns Hopkins. Recently she has switched her career focus to mechanical engineering.
1) Teaching is such a challenging profession, often without adequate compensation or recognition. What inspires you to keep at it?
What inspires me to keep at it is the difference you make in other’s life. Teaching gives you great opportunities to mentor, train, and help your students acquire various skills that they need to succeed in their future carrier. Seeing your student master the subject and actively involved in the learning process is a great joy. You are right about the compensation but these results are rewarding-something that I cannot assign monetary value to it.
2) You teach physics. What is it about this field that you are passionate about?
I am passionate about everything-physics. Physics helps address the why questions about our everyday life phenomena and our universe. There are many physics principles at work behind all of our technological advances- GPS, cell phone, hybrid cars, medical imaging, laser, etc. I am passionate about sharing my excitement for physics with my students.
At introductory physics level we have a large number of “toys” (as physicists call them), computer simulations and animations that we can use to illustrate how physics (the laws of nature) works. I always try to emphasize and show that physics is not mathematics (Maths). This past spring semester I overheard a student in a hallway explaining different subjects to her friends and, of course, “Physics is just Maths” was the definition given for physics. I was with another physics colleague but I had to stop and explain why physics is not Maths. Most of my students are future engineers and having solid foundation of physics is key to their success.
3) What advice do you have for someone thinking about pursuing a teaching career in science, especially young women?
I have never taught any other subject other than physics. So my answers would be geared toward teaching physics. Teaching is a rewarding experience but you have to be invested in it and fully committed to it. If you are not passionate about the field and your teaching, then most of your student would soon sense the absence of excitement and may not get actively involved or develop interest in learning what physics offers.
When we come out of school with our physics degrees, we know how to do physics well but many of us may not yet have the skill to get it across to our students. Developing a great teaching skill that works for you requires time. I think the most important part of teaching is learning how your students learn. It is about finding ways of actively engaging the student in their learning process so that they can learn the subject themselves.
The science area, especially physics, needs women educators. Having you in classrooms would inspire future young scientists and engineers. The science field needs you.
4) What do you do for fun?
I like spending time with my family, friends, and trying to answer the endless challenging why-questions of my three year old son. I also like playing soccer and listening to music.