Head, Dept. of Chemistry & Physics / Professor of Physics Purna Das
To acquaint and inform faculty and staff about individual colleagues and the manner in which they serve PNW, students and society, Points of Pride continues its series of Q&A profiles. Featured here is Purna Das, head of the Department of Chemistry and Physics and professor of physics.
Q: What is your academic title and how long have you served Purdue University Northwest / Purdue University North Central?
PD: I am head of the Department of Chemistry and Physics, comprised of 19 full-time faculty members and six full-time staff members. Prior to the unification, I served as chair of the Mathematics, Statistics and Physics Department at Purdue University North Central for 10 years. I have been a faculty member since 1991.
Q: How did you develop your interest and passion for physics?
PD: My love of physics began early. As a high school student I excelled in math, especially problem solving in geometry, algebra and calculus. It wasn’t until I took physics courses in high school that I found a natural place to apply my math knowledge. It was fulfilling to realize the power of mathematics in formulating equations to solve physics problems. My passion for physics was further nurtured by a physics teacher, whose teaching style and inspiration solidified my desire to continue higher studies in physics.
Q: How did you become inspired to teach?
PD: My first inspiration to teach came from my father. Although I could not yet understand, as a teacher, he essentially taught optimism. I think that was my source of inspiration to become a teacher. In graduate school, I was given a very rewarding job of teaching a physics course with full responsibility. I learned firsthand how important it was to tie one’s research back to education in order to have the most impact. Once again, my department chair’s optimism and confidence in me inspired me as a teacher then and continues to enthuse me.
Q: What fuels your passion to be the best teacher you can be?
PD: I strive to be the best teacher I can be by making sure that I am able to make a difference in my students’ lives, in their understanding of the physical world around them and in being optimistic that they have the potential to succeed. It is rewarding to hear back from former students whose lives I have impacted in some way. I have received letters, emails and even a plaque from grateful students.
Q: How do you pass your enthusiasm for physics matter to your students?
PD: I try to create lessons that emphasize classroom activities that engage students. I often incorporate films and videos available online to keep student enthusiasm high. I tend to do a demonstration or ask students to do a fun activity to secure their attention from the outset. I try to create an enthusiastic atmosphere through teaching that is reflected in how I relate and respond to students and encourage students to see me about their difficulties. Above all, I relate to my students in a positive way by emphasizing they are capable of learning physics.
Q: You teach students from a variety of disciplines and career aspirations. How do you keep the subject relevant to today’s students?
PD: Making the course relevant to all is a challenge, and it is one of the most important aspects of teaching and learning. I have found that students are more satisfied when the topics are germane to their career aspirations. I try to create relevant, meaningful activities that engage students by connecting with what they already know. I give more emphasis to real world applications by showing how theory can be applied in practice. I find that projects and group assignments pertinent to students’ disciplines can motivate diverse groups of students.
Q: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect about teaching in higher education and the most rewarding aspect about teaching in higher education?
PD: One of the challenges to teaching at the university level is student preparedness. Unprepared students usually find themselves in an environment where expectations of them are higher than what they expect of themselves. This means extra effort is necessary to supplement instruction in order to raise discipline, specific skills and abilities of some students. I find it most rewarding to be able to help such a student.