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Opportunities to Learn

May 7, 2018

male wearing virtual reality headsetWritten by: Alan Buss, Associate Professor of Elementary & Early Childhood Education.

What do I love most about being a professor? Learning! Fortunately, opportunities to learn and keep learning are everywhere.

When I was 12 or 13 I started catching spiders, keeping them in jars, feeding them whatever insects I could capture. I learned how they spun different kinds of webs, depending on the need. I learned that they would never leave the jar once their webs were in place. I learned that house flies jump vertically when they take off before moving horizontally. I didn’t set out one day to learn about spiders or flies. I simply made an interesting observation about spiders and decided to dive in the best I knew how.

Gross, I know, but it was a learning experience I’ll never forget.

Learning opportunities about, unsurprisingly, in academia. A colleague once reflected, “I love being a professor. What other job pays you to keep learning?” He was a seasoned scientist when he entered academia, with strong field and industry experience, so one might have expected him to be satisfied with his disciplinary understanding. Instead, the inquisitive nature that directed him into the sciences as a youth drove him to deepen and extend his learning, thus achieving excellence as a teacher. I am amazed at the breadth of books he reads (his home library is remarkable), his expert use of technology tools, and his knowledge of significant issues facing humanity. His learning never stops.

As a counter point, my father related a story to me about one of his biology professors while pursuing a PhD back in the early 1960’s. The professor, nearing retirement, sat on a stool at the front of the lecture hall, holding a yellowed, taped and re-taped set of lecture notes. He proudly announced that they were the first set of lecture notes he developed in his first year of teaching. He was confident that the science had not changed to warrant revisions. The professor’s learning stopped, to his own detriment and that of his students!

One of the perks of being at a university is being surrounded by faculty and students who also love to learn. I have creative, supportive and knowledgeable colleagues in the College of Education, Arts & Sciences, Engineering, Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the School of Energy Resources. In my time at the University of Wyoming I’ve been able to collaborate with faculty from the departments of Mathematics, Geology, Computer Science, Molecular Biology, Zoology/Physiology, Physics & Astronomy, and Geography, to name a few. In every interaction I learn how to be a better teacher, researcher, and friend.

A current personal learning endeavor is wrapped up in the development of virtual reality experiences to increase students’ understanding of fundamental science concepts. I am working with a team of educators from four colleges to determine the feasibility of using head-mounted displays, like the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and the Microsoft Hololens, in social learning settings to impact learning. As a teacher I’ve struggled with how to help students experience the unseen world in ways that lead to greater understanding of physical phenomena. Being a part of the development team has been exciting, humbling, enriching, and invigorating. It is easy to keep learning when I’m surrounded by others who love to learn.

Carefully consider your opportunities to learn and grow. There are many paths to take, countless interesting topics to study, and hopefully, at least one dissertation-worth research question to answer. Visit with your advisors, graduate committee members, professors, and peers about how you can maximize your learning during your studies. Once you enter the profession, surround yourself with those who share your love for learning. As you do so, your learning will never stop.

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