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Interview with Professor Cheol-Hwan Park, recipient of the 2020 Excellence in Teaching Award

Dec 17, 2020

Professor Cheol-Hwan Park (Department of Physics & Astronomy), back-to-back recipient of the College of Natural Sciences Teaching Award for 2016 and 2017, has adopted the flipped learning (or flipped classroom) model to help physics and astronomy students be more engaged in the traditionally grueling thermal and statistical physics classes. Professor Park has also flipped the script on the way in which undergraduate students are able to meet with their advisors by creating a new system for the department and a guideline for professors.

To commemorate his achievement, the English Editors team reached out to him to learn more about his research and teaching philosophy. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Professor Cheol-Hwan Park (Department of Physics & Astronomy), recipient of the 2020 Excellence in Teaching Award
Professor Cheol-Hwan Park (Department of Physics & Astronomy), recipient of the 2020 Excellence in Teaching Award

How did you come to love physics?

That the fundamental principles of physics can help us to see and understand the world in a new light is what made me fall in love with physics. I am particularly interested in computational materials physics, which is to say that I try to understand material properties through physical theories and calculations.

What does it mean to be a professor at SNU?

It means that I have responsibilities not only as a researcher but also as a teacher. I am still in the process of trying to become a professor who can set up both the students I teach and those with whom I do research to be better prepared for the next big stage in their lives.

Could you tell us more about flipped learning, as well as your unique style of meetings with students?

Flipped learning is the method in which, after having read or watched the course material ahead of class, students direct the learning process, while the instructor takes on a role similar to that of a conductor, facilitating discussion. Flipped learning tends to be much more effective than the traditional educational model, but it requires the instructor to create educational content in advance of the class. For this reason, this educational model has not been used very frequently, but it has started to become more popular due to COVID-19. Flipped learning requires students to be proactive as well, as they have to watch lecture notes, tackle problems, and have a firm grasp of the course materials so that, come lecture time, they are prepared to take part in the discussions. Students that are highly motivated are able to actively take part in class discussions, whereas those that are less prepared for lectures may find it hard to keep up. I believe in the potential of flipped learning, but I also want all of my students to benefit from this model, and so over the years I have made some tweaks and adjustments to current flipped learning practices. To make a long story short, rather than making students watch video lectures, I create interactive homework that better facilitates understanding. I plan to explain my new flipped learning method in detail in a talk scheduled for January 2021.

As for meeting with students, I think it’s important to acknowledge that, apart from a few particularly gregarious types, most professors are too caught up with their busy work and life routines to proactively engage much with students. But all professors would prefer that their meetings with students be fruitful. I have tried to address this issue, as well as the mental barrier that many students face in considering whether or not to reach out to their professors. Again, I will expand upon this more in my talk in January, but in essence, I have tried to create a system where students can meet with their advisors during holidays to discuss their plans for the next semester by scheduling the meetings through the administrative office, which can confirm the professor’s availability.

How do you approach your role as mentor to your students?

As physics instructor, I find myself sharing with my students my personal feelings towards the subject, which is that physics is very hard. I wrestle with physics every day, and through my own struggles I feel that I am better able to empathize with students who also find the subject challenging. After explaining a certain concept, I can’t help but show my students a further layer of complexity, and sometimes I get so enthralled in this that I end up confusing everybody, myself included! These are the moments when I end class thinking, ”I screwed up”

In addition to the undergraduate students whom I teach, a number of students come to me every semester as their advisor. ‘There is no grave without an excuse’ is a phrase that means that no matter how inevitable something may seem, there was always a reason or ‘excuse’ behind the inevitable happening. I tend to disagree with this axiom, and so whenever I discuss with my students their trials and tribulations, I try to see things from their point of view, and try to tell them that, despite it all, they tried their best, and sometimes whatever hardships one must go through are inevitable and not the result of one’s shortcomings.

As for my graduate students, at the very least I want to offer them the privileges that I had as a graduate student. For example, I never had to write grant proposals on behalf of my professor as a graduate student, except perhaps the occasional one-page summary of something that directly pertained to my research. I don’t ask of my students anything more than this of, even if the grant money pays their salaries. While this allows students to focus more on their own work, some may view it as depriving them of opportunities to hone a new skillset. But based on my own experiences, this sort of paperwork was not something that I found to be particularly challenging, even though I had never done it prior to becoming a professor. Hopefully my students will one day feel similarly.

I also never had to worry about where our research funds were going or who was doing the accounting; all I ask of my students is that they collect the receipts from trips abroad, conferences, and group dinners so that the administrative office and I can take care of the paperwork (apart from those that necessitate student participation, such as funding from Brain Korea foundation). I had always considered this liberating during my graduate school years, and thought my students would think the same. Indeed, most of my students seemed rather unconcerned with the accounting work, and were happy to spend more time on their own interests, but I have had students with a quite different point of view. I remember one student who had to come to our group to do his PhD and was particularly concerned with the thorough accounting of our funds, as that student had completed his master’s in a research group that was much more stringently regulated than our own. Having listened to that student’s concerns, I came to realize that our ‘laid back’, purely research focused framework was not perfect. It is due to this student, who has since graduated and since succeeded in his own light, that I have to come to think about lab life in a new light.

To further impart a feeling of egalitarianism amongst our students, everyone receives the same amount of financial support, excluding the scholarships that individual students apply for, and also excluding the students who are sponsored by companies that they are bound to after graduating. I give everybody an equal salary because that it is how it was done when I was a graduate student in the US, and that is how it is still done there. I’m a firm believer that our country should change the legislation that professors are able to determine their student’s salaries at their whim -- student salaries should be determined by the school. To me, this is especially important as it allows students not to have their self-esteem be determined by their achievements and salaries relative to that of their peers, and this allows all students to be focused solely on their research. Furthermore, it validates research that is truly valuable but not considered ”high-impact” or “hot” at the moment, although admittedly it provides little monetary incentive to those who have had their work published in a blockbuster journal. Ultimately however, monetary discrepancies between graduate students should be reduced, to allow them to find their true motivations in the research that they have come to graduate school to conduct.

Perhaps I’m sounding a bit too pro-American here, but I am truly grateful for my PhD advisor, my colleagues and the system in American universities that have created such a wonderful environment that allowed me to commit to the research that I love. I’m not trying to revolutionize the system here in any way, but merely trying to help my students have as many opportunities as possible. I realize that my philosophy isn’t perfect, and that my students may have differing opinions.

How does it feel to a recipient of the 2020 Excellence in Teaching Award?

I feel grateful towards the students whose contributions have allowed me to receive this award in spite of my many shortcomings. My interpersonal relationships with the students I advise, as well as the constructive criticism from the students that I teach have helped me to learn and to grow. I would also like to extend my greatest thanks to Professor Heonsu Jeon, Dean of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, without whom the changes to undergraduate meetings would not have been possible. Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to all the professors of the Department of Physics and Astronomy -- they have helped me become a better researcher and instructor since my appointment at SNU. Several professors have asked me whether I am the youngest professor to have received the Excellence in Teaching Award, but I am not, as professors younger than I from the Department of Psychology and College of Fine Arts have received the award many years prior. And so I am able to feel less embarrassed at having received this award, and more grateful towards those I have mentioned.

Written by Cheesue Kim, SNU English Editor,
Reviewed by Professor Travis Smith, Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations,