How I failed physics and started teaching it

This was me back in senior year of 2004

I won’t say that I wasn’t nervous taking 4 AP (advanced placement) tests in mid-2004. I heard stories that high school senior year was supposed to be an easy transition to college. You take easy classes, throw in an independent study, and hang out with friends. You know, the easy stuff before jumping into adulthood.

Easy cards weren’t dealt that senior year. I had to work my butt off by taking multiple AP courses. Something inside of me wanted free college credit before jumping into the university world.

I realized later that overloading myself came with a cost. Work overload diffused focus and understanding of a specific topic. My mind was all over those AP courses and instead of excelling in a specific topic, I’d scratch the surface. I bit off more than I could chew.

My AP physics teacher was a lovely British lady who knew how to teach well. Time just wasn’t there for me to scratch beneath the surface. Maybe that’s what I tell myself to ease the pain.

I didn’t pass the AP physics exam.

I felt defeated. I felt like I let her down and all this work was for naught.

Nikita presents this story to an audience.

Facing physics again at Colorado School of Mines

I averaged about 18 credit hours each semester. My first year of 2004–2005 was challenging. I had to take mechanical physics again as I didn’t get AP credit in high school. I thought OK, this is my second chance. There’s no way I’ll mess it up again.

As the semester was winding down in May 2005, I got a D in physics. How the hell did I not make through physics the second time? They weren’t going to let me get away with a D. Physics was a core class. Nikita, you have two options: Take an accelerated physics course during the summer of 2005 or wait another year to retake the class. I wasn’t going to waste a year.

Something clicked in my head before I started physics summer school. I told myself that no longer will I skim the surface of this subject. Twice I took the course and twice I couldn’t grasp it. If I’m going to take it over the summer and spend the warm days mucking around in the classroom, I’m going to comprehend the concepts behind mechanical physics. Damn it if Newton himself won’t be looking over my shoulder.

I didn’t want to remember formulas. Once you understand something, you don’t need to remember. You can derive formulas from logic. That’s called problem solving. I had the same professor that summer with similar material. I ended up with a high 90% in the class. It was 97% or 98% out of 100%. I was Rainman.

No, I was Keanu Reeves from The Matrix when he was hooked up into the seat absorbing Kung Fu. I was doing all the extra credit on tests and scoring above 100%. It wasn’t enough to get the question right. I had to comprehend it and be able to explain to myself why the solution made sense.

My concentration that summer was pinpointed on physics and the third time was the charm. During the summer class, I started helping students understand problems they couldn’t overcome. I took physics concepts and broke them down to the core so that my friends could think about them intuitively without having to remember formulas. These were some of my happiest moments in college.

By the end of the summer, I felt so passionate about understanding physics that I applied to work as teaching assistant in mechanical physics for the upcoming semester. I got the job.

Here’s a kid who got a D in physics for the second time in May of 2005. Four months later, I started working as a teaching assistant and tutoring kids in physics. Who said you can’t do something awesome in four months?

Best coaches are usually not best athletes

You’ve heard that best sports coaches are not those who were best athletes. Best athletes are so good at what they do that they usually have a hard time coaching.

Gifted athletes can see the pitfalls athletes make but it’s hard for them to relate a solution to a problem they didn’t suffer from themselves. It’s like asking a natural artist to teach you how to draw. They’ll say just pick up the pencil and do it. They likely won’t be able to explain how to see shadows, perspective and such.

How gifted naturals explain drawing to a new person.

That’s why some of the best coaches who lead their athletes to Olympic wins are those who didn’t make it to the Olympics themselves. Remember the movie Rocky? Mick, Rocky’s trainer, gave his whole life to boxing but couldn’t see past his mistakes until after his prime. That’s why he sees his own mistakes in Rocky and is able to help Rocky overcome those obstacles.

That’s how I felt with tutoring physics to other students. By having previously failed to grasp the subject and then overcoming the failure, I was able to see where my pupils were having a hard time. I could break down complex problems into simple objects they’d understand.

Being able to help others understand physics is what made me so passionate about it. Being a physics TA in college was one of my favorite jobs I’ve had. It was fulfilling. I made a few bucks over minimum wage but I felt fulfilled.

Break everything to its simplicity

Everything that is useful is simple. That which is complicated is not useful -Mikhail Kalashnikov

Kalashnikov is right because a complicated system can be broken down into simple understandable parts. Simplicity often hides behind jargon. Ask lawyers and they’ll tell you that’s especially true in their field.

Certain things aren’t easy as pie for me. There are certain things that are hard for you as well. They’re not easy because we haven’t broken them up into simple intuitive ideas. Those simple ideas hide behind useless complications.

You have to tell yourself: I won’t accept skimming the surface on this. I want to understand intuitively. I don’t want to remember formulas. I want to derive them from thinking about the problem intuitively and logically.

You can then start to peel away the layers of the onion. Tell yourself that you have to teach this material to someone else. How would you learn it and how would you teach it back? Once you feel you can teach the material to another person, you can be sure that you now know the material.

Peel the onion layers of complexity away until you see simplicity.

You know what happens when you know a subject or a process inside and out? You develop passion for it. It becomes a spark. Is it passion that causes you to be interested in something or is it doing something and understanding it intuitively that creates passion? Let that be food for thought.

Originally published at www.basicdrop.com on November 15, 2016