Prof. and Dean Tom Katsouleas, Dean of the Pratt School of Eng- ineering, is in constant motion as he teaches a Tuesday afternoon recitation section for Physics 151. One minute he’s scribbling equations and drawing graphs on the blackboard; the next he’s singing an old Crosby, Stills and Nash song to help students remember that long waves travel faster than short ones. Every 15 minutes or so, he assigns a practice problem and strides out among the tables to interact with students one-on-one. Even though this is the last meeting before the final exam, the mood in the room is one of easygoing collaboration. The students bring up topics for review, suggest different approaches to problems, point out the origin of a sign error, and laugh when Katsouleas makes an unintended pun on the word “wavelength.” Near the end of the recitation, he hands out the midterm and says how proud he is of the students: the average in this recitation section was 3 points higher than the overall class average. Last fall, when students signed up for the Tuesday afternoon recitation, they didn’t know who would be teaching them. Michaela Walker, a first-year engineering student from Boston, says, “On the first day of physics lecture, Dr. Behringer said who the recitation profs were, and we looked at each other and were like, ‘Wait. Dean K? Really?’”
At first, Walker was a little worried that a dean might not be the best professor, but that notion was quickly dispelled. “I feel really lucky to be in this recitation. Dean K. really does care about teaching. He really likes it when we have ‘ah ha’ moments,” she says. “And it’s really cool to be able to go to his office for office hours and know he has time for first-year undergraduates.” Katsouleas, who has a PhD in physics and a secondary appointment in the physics department, answered the call when the physics department asked for volunteers to teach recitation sections for Physics 151, which is Introductory Mechanics for engineers and other non-physics science majors. Katsouleas hadn’t taught an undergraduate class in a couple of years and was anxious to get back in the classroom. “I do like to teach and I feel like it’s so central to the mission of the university that if I don’t do it some, I feel out of touch with the main activity of campus,” he says. Courses in the engineering school were covered, so he decided to sign up for a physics recitation section. “It’s worked out perfectly for me because it’s reminding me how much I love physics and how much fun it is to teach physics,” he says. “At the same time it’s given me an opportunity to meet a lot of freshmen engineering students, which is something that’s also important to me. I really enjoy getting to know them and saying hi on campus.” Michael Sutton, a first-year engineering student from near Pittsburgh, says he “thoroughly enjoyed” the recitation and appreciates Katsouleas’s engineering perspective. “Dean K makes sure we understand that engineering is really involved in what we’re doing,” he says. Indeed, when the class was doing estimation problems (Fermi problems), Katsouleas asked his students how they would respond to actual requests that he’s received from colleagues or board members to evaluate the feasibility of an idea. “These are the kinds of problems engineers get paid to solve,” he says. Although it’s certainly unusual to find a dean teaching a recitation section, Katsouleas says he would do it again. The less-structured time allowed him to respond to the needs and interests of the students in a way that’s not easy to do in a large lecture class. “We didn’t always do what I thought we would do in that two-hour period, and the same is not true when you are teaching a formal lecture,” he says. “It was two hours full of learning moments.” Perhaps more importantly, the less-structured time made it easy to interact with the students and get to know them. “Even before I came to Duke—after I’d been hired but before I came here—faculty said, ‘Wait ‘til you get into the classroom—you’re going to love our students,’” Katsouleas says. “There really is something special about Duke students.” See our Flickr album for more photos of Dean Katsouleas teaching.
Mary-Russell Roberson is a freelance science writer who lives in Durham.