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Faculty Focus – Dr. Michael Koop

June 7, 2021

Dr. Michael Koop

  • Birthplace: Leamington, Ontario, Canada

  • Title: Lecturer

  • Department: Physics and Astronomy

  • Expansive Ideas Series: https://youtu.be/2xJPOqS_Flc

  • Number of Years Teaching: 7 years as an instructor and 4 years as a TA

  • Number of Years at OHIO Chillicothe: 6 years

  • Degrees/University/Dates:

    • Ph.D., Physics, The Pennsylvania State University - 2014

    • B.S., Mathematical Physics, University of Waterloo - 2008

Q.  What led you to OHIO Chillicothe?

     "When I first visited Chillicothe, I was very much reminded of where I grew up in Southern Ontario.  A similar sized town, lots of farmland surrounding it, similar appearance, etc. which made it quite comfortable for me.  During that first visit I got to meet many wonderful faculty members, staff, and students who were all excited to be there.  A big part of the draw for me was the fact that I would be working with relatively small class sizes, which allows closer, more personal interactions with the students, and allows more flexibility in adjusting the course activities in real time to address students interests and needs.  Since joining the OHIO Chillicothe faculty, I have consistently and thoroughly enjoyed working with and getting to know the students." 

Q: What are the areas of campus and community engagement in which you are involved? How does this support or impact your teaching?

     "I have been involved with a fair number of science outreach events for both students of all ages and the general public.  On campus I've held several events in the "Expansive Ideas" series, giving interactive presentations on topics relating to physics and astronomy, led a Kids in College class for K-2 students, and held physics demonstrations for local elementary school groups visiting the campus and for College Credit Ready events.  The last few years I've organized Halloween-themed science demonstrations at the OUC Trick or Treat events, given science-based presentations at local libraries, led science lab activities with local elementary school classes, and acted as an advisor for students working on science projects.

     Having had the opportunity to work with people from a wide range of age groups (all the way from pre-K to older lifelong learners) I've generally found that, if presented in the right way, learners of all ages can start to pick up on the methods of science quite effectively (asking questions, testing ideas with experiments, looking for patterns in data).  I've led classes of early elementary students in experiments that are not too different than what I do with my introductory physics course (though at a slower pace and with less math detail) and, if given the opportunity, they pick up the key ideas quite well.  I strongly believe that introducing students to the principles of science and critical thinking as early as possible can have tremendous benefits throughout their lives."

Q: Who is your biggest role model and why? 

     "I have a strong admiration of people who effectively promote science literacy, critical thinking skills, and skepticism to the public, and do so in a way that demonstrates compassion, patience, humor, and empathy.  People like Carl Sagan, Neil Degrass Tyson, Adam Savage, Dianna Cowern, James Randi, Bill Nye, and many others like them come to mind."

Q. What are some of your recent accomplishments or successes you would like to share with others?

     "In the craziness that has been the past year, I'm very proud of how we (as a University in general but also specifically my Physics and Astronomy colleagues and I) have been able to adapt to changing circumstances and developed remote versions of the Physics and Astronomy courses that successfully meet all our learning objectives.  Despite the difficulty of teaching remotely, I've received very positive feedback regarding these course offerings.  Over the past year we've also redeveloped the PSC 1010 "Physical World" course to meet the needs of students in the Education program.  While I haven't been able to hold face-to-face science outreach events, I have been able to hold remote science outreach events (still looking forward to getting back face-to-face)."

Q. What is one (or two) books every student should read and why? 

     "Fooled by Randomness" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  The book is about chance, and how we often misinterpret the role that chance plays in our lives, sometimes ignoring the huge effect that it has, or worse, interpreting luck as skill (causing one to take a lucky positive outcome of some action as an ironclad sign that they should continue that action, with potentially disastrous results).  It goes through lots of ideas regarding biases, the limitations in what we can infer from past observations, how we try to add narrative to random events, how to deal with uncertainty and unknown unknowns, etc.  It's written in an accessible way, and while most of the examples are in the context of the stock market (the author was a stock trader) the lessons are very applicable to many areas of science, critical thinking, and everyday life.  This book has probably had a greater influence on my own scientific thinking than any other I've read.

     If you're looking for something lighter, I'd recommend "How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems" by Randall Munroe on how to do simple, everyday tasks in the most scientifically complicated, impractical, and insane way possible, like crossing a river by removing the water.  Self-proclaimed "world's least useful self-help book."

Q: What is one piece of advice that you would give students?

     "Train yourself to apply the methods of scientific critical thinking and skepticism in different aspects of your life.  Consider what biases you have (everyone has biases), question your own beliefs more critically than you questions other's beliefs (it's very easy to think you're right), and withhold judgement on claims until there is sufficient evidence that specifically supports the claim.  

     Also, when people offer you advice, beware survivorship bias (I have this comic on the door to my office: https://xkcd.com/1827/).

Q. When you were in college, what were your interests?  

     "My area of research interest in grad school was gravitational wave astronomy.  Gravitational waves were predicted by Einstein in 1916 and first directly detected by the LIGO collaboration in 2015 (99 years later).  You can think of them as ripples in the fabric of spacetime, produced by certain astrophysical systems.  By "seeing" these gravitational waves we can study the systems that produce them in an entirely new way.  In grad school I worked with the NANOGrav collaboration, which is working to use the signals from pulsars (a type of spinning dead star that sends out regularly repeating signals like a lighthouse) to detect certain types of gravitational waves."

Q. How would your co-workers describe your teaching style and personality?   

     "Loud and boisterous when getting into talking about physics topics" - My wife and Covid co-worker Jennifer.

Q. Tell us a little about your love for science:

     "The methods of science are the most reliable methods we currently have to distinguish between claims that are likely true and likely false.  In science, all conclusions are tentative and subject to revision as we gather more and better observations.  If we want to have the best understanding of the world around us, so we can make informed decisions in our individual lives and in our society, we must apply the best tools that we have.  Science also builds on itself.  Every time we make a new discovery, we find ways to use it as a tool for further discovery.  The mathematics developed to study heat transfer in a metal bar are now used in data compression for sending/storing digital images/video/etc.  Gravitational wave observations have allowed us to detect the collisions of neutron stars, which has informed our understanding of heavy element production in the universe.  Most modern technology is based on our understanding of quantum mechanics in some way.  New scientific discoveries can often lead to benefits for society in unexpected ways."