A Passion for Teaching
Claudia De Grandi recently joined the U as an assistant professor lecturer in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. She first fell in love with physics in high school and was thrilled to discover the beauty of the connection between math and nature. Her initial curiosity to know and study everything matured into the desire to master the skills and tools needed to grasp the most advanced topics in condensed matter theory and their connections with the latest, most sophisticated experiments.
Throughout her academic career, De Grandi’s research has been in very specialized areas of physics—studying cold atomic gases and superconducting qubits. Her focus has changed, however, and she now devotes her talents and energy to teaching physics—finding the best way to improve the quality of physics education by understanding the cognitive mechanisms that help or hinder learning and by developing pedagogical techniques to improve learning.
“My new position at the U is called Professor of Educational Practice,” she said. “What I like most about it is that I will be teaching, which is something that I absolutely need to do to be happy! But I’ll also devote time to broader projects aimed at improving physics and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education at different levels—from promoting interdisciplinary curriculum developments in the department to fostering the adoption of innovative teaching methods. My goal is to work with other faculty to make STEM an inclusive and welcoming environment for everyone.”
Part of De Grandi’s motivation for teaching physics is to use it as a way to connect with students. “I want to show each of them how much beauty there is in physics to discover and also empower them with quantitative skills they may not know they have.” De Grandi recognizes that it takes time to understand the needs and backgrounds of her students. “Getting to know them is always a new challenge that keeps me busy and excited. I’m always striving to improve my teaching by using ideas from cognitive sciences and psychology and experimenting with new approaches.”
For example, De Grandi has researched how classroom settings affect student learning. Do students learn differently sitting in groups around a table versus sitting in rows in a lecture hall? Her research shows how simply sitting around a table creates a sense of community and dramatically improves the student learning experience. She believes it’s also important that all students (regardless of gender orientation, non-gender orientation, or other dimensions of diversity) have the support and resources they need to succeed in class.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done to make physics, and science in general, more accessible. We need to foster an environment that is more welcoming to women and other under-represented groups in STEM.” One of the ways she hopes to do this is by finding opportunities to partner with and support high schools and community college programs. She plans to become active in the U’s Center for Science and Mathematics Education, which already embraces many of these initiatives.
De Grandi grew up in Milan, Italy, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from the University of Milan. In 2011, she obtained her Ph.D. in theoretical condensed matter physics from Boston University. She was at Yale first as a research postdoc in Steven Girvin’s group, and she continued as a teaching postdoc through the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning. During this time, she was able to learn about the latest pedagogical methods while teaching Yale undergraduates, training faculty, and being involved in broader STEM projects. “I can’t imagine where I would be now without the training I received at Yale. My new position at the U relies strongly on the skills and expertise that I developed during my time there.”
De Grandi has biked everywhere she’s ever lived, and she looks forward to continuing this tradition in Salt Lake City. She will certainly devote time to hiking and exploring the outdoors in Utah. De Grandi has an engaging hobby: exploring modern architecture as well as old industrial buildings.
“I’m very excited to get started as a new faculty member at the U,” she said. “I’m looking forward to meeting the students and getting to know and be part of the U and the Salt Lake community.”