Action at a distance: Teaching condensed matter physics remotely

Hear from award-winning instructor Frank Hegmann on teaching remotely in Fall 2020.

Katie Willis - 2 November 2020

From new assessment tools to on-camera demonstrations, Frank Hegmann is dedicated to making remote learning as engaging and life-like as possible for his students. 

An award-winning instructor with expertise in ultra-fast terahertz science and nanophysics, Hegmann is a professor in the Department of Physics. In the Fall 2020 term, Hegmann is teaching fourth-year undergraduate physics courses at a distance, including Introduction to Condensed Matter Physics (PHYS 415) as well as as well as a special topics course on Optical Properties of Solids (PHYS 495 and 595). 

As an experimental physicist, Hegmann knows the importance of demonstrating certain concepts. “In the remote environment, I incorporate as many demonstrations as possible,” he said. “On a separate webcam, I try to illustrate fundamental concepts to students. Seeing experiments done in class to demonstrate certain physical properties of solids, even dunking things in liquid nitrogen and measuring the resistance or seeing a magnet being levitated above a superconductor with your own eyes. These are valuable experiences for students.” 

For Hegmann, while remote instruction is no substitute for gathering in-person, some elements of the remote environment function very effectively. 

“One thing that is working really well is the chat function,” he explained. “Truth be told, I am getting more questions now than I do during in-person lectures. There are more questions, and most of them are great questions.” 

And when asked his advice for students considering taking remote delivery courses, Hegmann urges students to remember that we are in it together.

“If students are struggling and adjusting to this new mode, I want them to know that their instructors are adjusting, too. It’s a new world for all of us. Please have patience and know that even though there may be hiccups and complications along the way that we are trying our best. And above all, know that we are working alongside you to make this the best experience possible.” 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has required a mass migration to the digital world, and post-secondary learning is no exception. The University of Alberta is delivering course content primarily remotely in the Fall 2020. While delivery may look different, what remains the same is our strong commitment to an engaging and quality education and experience for our students.

Learn more about campus life at the University of Alberta in the 2020/21 academic year.