Like riding a motorcycle

Teaching award winner keeps the focus on his students

At the tender age of 11, Ralf Gothe got his first taste of tutoring students at the elementary school where his father was principal. And at the University of Mainz in Germany, he was the youngest undergraduate teaching recitations to fellow undergrads.

That early exposure to pedagogy paid off. Now a professor of physics and astronomy at USC, Gothe is one of four faculty members to receive the 2017 Michael J. Mungo Undergraduate Teaching Award. Nine years ago, he received the Mungo Graduate Teaching Award.

“You have to allow students to be frank and open while also not losing control, or anarchy will break out in class. It’s like riding a motorcycle —  fun but dangerous,” says Gothe, who says he tries to stay 100 percent focused on his students and their reaction to the material.

“Teaching them physics is not the focus — they are the focus. I’ve got to try to know what’s going on in students’ heads to engage with them on the material.”

To that end, Gothe tries to anticipate questions students might ask in class and figures out ways to incorporate those queries into the material. One gets the sense that Gothe’s classes are intellectually stimulating and intense — perhaps even fun if you stay on your toes.

“When you have a solution to a problem, that’s when the fun starts,” he says. “You should ask yourself: ‘How could I have done this more elegantly?’ It’s always more fun to find the more elegant solution.”

Gothe credits his Ph.D. mentor with giving him freedom to explore and find the correct solution, “which is what I want all of my students to have. If you have an idea and a concept, I want you to try it out to build your own success,” he says. “I try to give my students the freedom to explore, the freedom to learn in a guided way.”

You have to allow students to be frank and open while also not losing control, or anarchy will break out in class.

Ralf Gothe

Gothe has taught at USC since 2002, arriving from the University of Bonn where he had been an associate professor. His two sons graduated from USC’s Honors College but not before taking a nuclear physics course taught by their dad.

“I told them they had to establish themselves as A students before they could take a course with me because I didn’t want anyone saying anything if they earned an A in my course,” Gothe says. The brothers aced their dad’s course and went on to earn doctoral degrees in astrophysics and radio chemistry from Johns Hopkins and Berkeley, respectively.

Gothe clearly loves physics — it’s the first thing he talks about in a discussion of his teaching philosophy — but he loves the opportunity to interact with students even more. 

“I will clearly talk with them about physics and will clearly enjoy it if they remember what we talked about in class,” he says. “But my main goal is for them to be able to apply what they’re learning to what they do. To learn how to improve the outcome even if they already have a solution.”

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about