April 11, 2017

In academics, failure is usually viewed as a bad thing. But that’s not how Samya Zain sees it.

“It is so important to let students fail sometimes,” said Zain, associate professor and chair of the Department of Physics at Susquehanna University. “I want them to be OK with not knowing everything and to teach them to think of things more deeply.”

Zain teaches the freshman physics course Independent Thought and Explorations, or as she refers to it, a “whatevers” course, which helps students understand the cornerstones of physics and general science concepts. Labs, instead of covering one concept at a time, incorporate multiple concepts at once to ensure students have a strong foundation for upper-level physics courses.

“This way students can think of physics not as chapter-based, but topic-based,” Zain said.

Students have to find their own solutions to problems such as determining car speed. Zain provides little beyond the equation, lab supplies and strategic hints or questions. The class is structured around her “three-people strong” theory, which has students consistently working in teams of three.

During a recent lab, one team was able to determine the speed of a car through the creative use of crepe paper attached to the bumper.

“I didn’t even think of doing that, so they are teaching me, too,” Zain said. “The amount of pride they have in their own ability is exciting.”

The idea for the course came to Zain, she said, during the course of mothering her own three children, one of whom is a sophomore physics major at Susquehanna.

“I’m one of those weird moms who doesn’t run to pick her kids up as soon as they fall,” she said. “I want them to learn to be independent.”

As students move on to upper-level classes inside and outside of the physics department, Zain said she has noticed a change.

“Students are more comfortable in their own skins,” she said. “They are more open to talking to each other and discussing things because they know they don’t have to do it alone.”