SIUE’s Great Teacher of 2012: Dr. David Kaplan

Dr. David Kaplan

Dr. David Kaplan, Associate Professor of Physics, was awarded the 2012 Great Teacher Award. The award, founded by the SIUE Alumni Association in 1970, acknowledges instructors who display exceptional teaching skills and who guide and inspire students to lead successful careers and lives.

Kaplan, in his passion for his content and for helping students, displays just the characteristics of both an excellent and seasoned instructor. He began teaching at SIUE in 2001, and when he came to the University, he brought impressive credentials, a deep knowledge of physics, and a passion for sharing his knowledge with students.

Educated at New York University and Cornell, Kaplan has distinguished himself as a man not only fascinated with physics but also as a lifelong learner who does not hesitate to continually challenge his students and himself by always asking  “How do we know?”

Kaplan says that his interest in science and math was already excited as a young child. He recalls that, by the time he was about eight years old, he enjoyed  looking through his father’s calculus and radio engineering textbooks.

“Of course I didn’t understand [the textbooks] at that young age, but sometimes — and I think this applies to learning in general — if you stretch and expose yourself to things that you consciously think you don’t understand, the subconscious brain works on the material anyway, … and with this, the path to later understanding is much easier to navigate. For this reason, I think that it’s critically important that we expose our children to ideas of science and to creative and careful thinking as early as possible” he explains.

To Kaplan, teaching and helping students  is “more than a pleasure” and at the “center” of his life. He especially likes teaching students who have not been exposed to physics prior to taking his class, so that he may show them that, as he puts it, “science is not a mysterious art, inaccessible to all but a select few and showing them how truly much they can understand, even as beginners.”

He continues, “What is ultimately needed is not so much an extensive background, but rather the courage to ask, to hazard guesses, and then the ability to to evaluate those guesses by thinking critically and for oneself.”   He has called classroom teaching “a branch of dramatic theater” and says: “ I think that if you are excited about a subject, you can’t help but show this to students – your passion automatically comes across to them and they absorb some of it into their own makeup. I think that teachers should consciously use every theatrical device possible to facilitate this – drama, fire, humor, a story of human emotion, and more.”

He also passionately feels that “we can only excite and maintain the innate interest that human beings have for science by showing them its human side. Although the public often thinks that scientific progress is only accomplished in a sequestered laboratory or in a purely formal process in which each step follows inexorably and logically from the last, often, this is simply not true.”

He continues, “Scientists reason in a very human way by analogy and intuition, by hunches and guesses, through bias, by false starts, through serendipity, by borrowing ideas from other fields, occasionally by sublime insight, but, above all else, by hazarding guesses. Unfortunately, most textbooks don’t present the process of discovery that way. Seeing this encourages students – they see that there is hope for them to also make discoveries…Young people are naturally interested in exciting things. Science and its process are very, very exciting. We shouldn’t keep that excitement to ourselves.”

He also strongly feels that to truly understand science, one must understand its relevance in other fields such as philosophy, art and literature.

“As a human endeavor, science is, and has always been, interwoven with other human endeavors,” he explains.

Kaplan, in his passion for physics and for truly reaching learners, is showing SIUE students the wonders and absolute relevance of scientific thought and discovery in a postmodern world. With a sophisticated, well-rounded teaching philosophy, it is no wonder that he has received the Great Teacher Award.

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