Curiosity and Inspiration

By Alan O’Keefe
Assistant Professor, Physics

I have one of the best jobs in the world: I spend hours each day sharing what is (to me) some of the most amazing knowledge I’ve ever learned. This has brought me into contact with hundreds of students over my eleven years of teaching physics. An understanding of physics is not only useful—though it certainly is that—it inspires imagination, thought, curiosity, and appreciation of the universe. Being able to bring my students to that inspiration is why I do what I do. I’ve had the privilege of seeing this in many students, but perhaps none so saliently as K.

I first met K as an undecided student taking a physics class for non-majors at Highland Community College. Though it was her first physics class, she picked up the material quite well. But she showed something far more important than mere aptitude: curiosity. She would regularly stay after class to ask questions, not just over the material we covered in class that day, but about what it meant, in terms of how the universe works and what is possible in it. I was pleased, as the class ended, that she had clearly developed an interest in understanding the universe that would hopefully last long beyond graduation.

I was thrilled, the next semester, when she had signed up for the introductory course for majors. For the next three semesters, she continued to demonstrate both ability and imagination. She not only did quite well in all the courses, but became the treasurer for the local chapter of the Society of Physics Students, completed two honors projects with me, and asked some of the best and most insightful questions I’ve ever had a student ask.

When K graduated, her father walked up to me and shook my hand. I told him that it takes two things to be a great physicist: ability and imagination; and his daughter had a great deal of both. He responded: “I would say that it takes one more: a great teacher. I’ve never seen her so inspired before these last two years.”

The year after she graduated, she stopped by the college to talk with some of her old professors, myself included. She had transferred to Illinois State University, majoring in physics, and was doing quite well. She had decided that she wanted to be a physics teacher when she graduates. I certainly couldn’t object. It is, after all, one of the best jobs in the world.