Physics Spotlight

September 2019
Physics Spotlight

Brokk Toggerson

University of California Irvine

Brokk Toggerson is one of the many lecturers that work within the Physics Department. We wanted to introduce him, but also highlight the important work that he does within the department. He typically teaches PHY-131 : Introductory Physics I and PHY-132: Introductory Physics II. In the past, he has also taught PHY-691G which is a Graduate Student Development Seminar among others. Brokk's interests lie in active learning research-based pedagogy including application, effective creation of student teams to maximize learning, as well as, students approach to problem solving within physics. We are very excited to highlight Brokk and have him here at the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus! To learn more about him, read his Q&A below!

What is your professional background?  What did you major in and where?  How does your educational background help you teach and mentor students at UMass?

While I grew up outside of Atlanta, Georgia, I completed my undergraduate in physics at the University of Arizona in beautiful unique Tucson, Arizona. When I started my undergraduate career, I wanted to be an astronomy major and there were no good astronomy programs in Georgia at that time, so off I went. Taking that 1350 mile plunge was a transformative step for me.

Like UMass, University of Arizona is the flagship institution in the state system attracting top talent from all over. Arizona also has a similar tiered system for introductory courses: one sequence predominately for life sciences, one for engineers, and one for majors. This similarity was useful when I came to UMass.


Where did you attend graduate school? How did you decide which grad school to go to?  What advice would you have for a student who wants to go to graduate school?

I actually did not get accepted into graduate school on my first attempt: a combination of overreach on my part and what I later found out to be bad luck (one school to which I applied took almost no students in experimental particle physics the year I applied due to a glut in previous years). I think that, as faculty, putting our “failures” out there is important: it humanizes us. Faculty are not all perfect robots who get everything right the first time!

On my second attempt, I was accepted to Arizona, SUNY Stony Brook, and UC Irvine. I knew I wanted to go somewhere different for graduate school to expand my intellectual horizons. After the visits, I just felt that the faculty at Irvine just had a better energy. The fact that UCI was offering a better stipend and never had snow were definite bonuses too! After completing my coursework, I moved from Irvine to Geneva, Switzerland to pursue my research on the ATLAS experiment at CERN.

My suggestion to people interested in pursuing graduate school, is to think about who you want to work with and where you want to live. You will spend several years near your graduate school, having it be a place you want to live helps. The advisor relationship is also key: you really end up working with this person.


What attracted you to your current position?

During my Ph.D., I was required to do one-year of TAing. Turns out I really, really enjoyed it. I love sharing my love of physics with others. I liked teaching more than I liked my research to be honest. So, upon graduation, I decided to go into a teaching-based position instead of a more traditional research-based one.

With regards to what attracted me to UMass in particular, our union, the MSP, has done a really good job in ensuring that non-tenure-track faculty are treated with respect. This value placed on the work that lecturers do was a key component of my decision to come to UMass.


What would your advice be for someone who was thinking about a career in teaching?

I get this question a lot. In fact, I have written a post on the physics education blog about it:


What undergraduate course do you consider your favorite?

I tend to teach the introductory physics for life-science majors (131 and 132). I enjoy teaching these classes because of the freedom they provide and the opportunity for connections to other disciplines. When you teach a course for the majors, or even for engineering majors, you need to be sure that you prepare them for the next course in the sequence. For the life-science majors, 131 and 132 are it. There are no physics courses afterwards and for most of my students no course in their major (yet!) requires 131 and 132 as a prerequisite. I, therefore, have a lot of freedom to do different things with my course in terms of topics and emphasis that I would not have in other courses.

The life-science students also are fun because I get to keep learning! I need to be able to connect physics to their fields of study which means I have learned a lot of biology and biophysics, stretching me far beyond my training in particle physics.

With regards to the majors courses, my favorites are Physics 361 – Introduction to the Principles of Active Learning in Physics Education, Electricity and Magnetism (any level), and quantum mechanics. For Physics 361, I may be biased because I created it, but I really think that a course like this is important as it can be a window into education as a career; a direction that some of our students are interested in exploring, but an area without any other courses in our department. As for electricity/magnetism and quantum, I just find them to be beautiful.  


What are some of the major challenges you face, especially with technology and the sciences always in constant change?

Keeping up with the literature in physics education research is just as important as it is in any other branch of physics. There have been so many discoveries in the last few decades about what works and what doesn’t which are based upon how people actually learn. If you are teaching the same way as people did 40 years ago, then, in my mind, that is equivalent to not updating your research methods in your lab.

Technology is also making the production of free-to-student resources for our classrooms easier and easier. In this era of rising college costs, if I can do my part to help keep my students’ costs down, I am all for it. Projects like OpenStax and others are making these types of efforts easier and easier. I have, in conjunction with UMass undergrads, already made two custom textbooks for my courses.

Another thing technology is doing for the classroom is providing ways to both understand and mitigate inequities in education. One simple example involves 3-D printing. We can now design models to help all students, including those with visual impairments, understand some physics concepts more fully.


Are there any other roles you play within Physics or here on campus?

I am trying to encourage the systematic study of physics education. I conduct my own physics education research into the attitudes of students, as well as collaborate with other faculty on campus and throughout the 5-college system. One project, funded through the Mutual Mentoring program, is to develop a research-based curriculum across the intro life science courses. I am also a Teaching for Inclusion Diversity and Equity Ambassador.


What do you do outside of UMass?  Do you have a hobby?

I think it is important for those of us in academia to not only have outside lives but to talk about them. I was a ballet dancer for many years and still love going to shows when they come to town. My new hobby, however, is rock climbing. I got into the sport when I came to UMass and needed a form of exercise that was indoors during the winter! I like how social it is and the mental as well as physical challenge: many rock-climbing routes are puzzles to be figured out. I also love to cook and spend time with my new daughter!