James Graham Awarded 2007 Noyce Award

May 1, 2007



James Graham was honored this month with the Noyce Award which recognizes excellence in undergraduate teaching and curriculum development by a tenure-track faculty member in the physical sciences. He has taught undergraduates at Cal for more than a decade and is well known for his work in the undergraduate optical and infrared laboratory.

Lauren Anderson, a junior astronomy major commented on Dr. Graham's teaching style: "In most of my classes, I listen to a lecture, then take an exam," she said. "But Prof. Graham's style of teaching is radically different. His enthusiasm and encouragement of participation creates an environment for discussion and full engagement with the material. It helped me gain a deeper understanding of observational astronomy."

We sat down to talk with James Graham about teaching, astronomy and undergrads at Cal.

Congratulations on being awarded the Noyce Award!
Thank you.

When did you become interested in astronomy?
I've always been interested in science, and as a teenager I was interested in astronomy. I recall having a small telescope in my back yard that I used to look at things like the Moon and Saturn, but in high school and at university I was more interested in physics. My undergraduate major was in physics. It was only when I started thinking about life after graduation that I started thinking about astronomy and astrophysics.

What was the first undergrad class you taught at Cal?
I taught Astronomy 7A and 7B. I remember the first time I taught this class it was scheduled for 8:00 AM. Didn't the classroom schedulers know that astronomy is supposed to happen at night?!

Have students changed since you started teaching?
Every class is different. The combinations of characters and personalities make each class a unique opportunity to learn in new ways. That said, my impression is that the current generation of undergraduates are better prepared with math and writing skills.

What do you enjoy most about working with undergrads?
Figuring out how to explain something in a compelling way. I try to come up with experiments that are not just recipes, but require students to think hard and take risks. It's worthwhile and fruitful for a student to try an approach that takes a lot of time and effort even if it doesn't necessarily produce the "right answer."

How would you describe your philosophy of teaching?
Teaching is a two way street. Unless both the students and the professor are learning, it's just preaching.

What do you like to do when you're not teaching?
Doing research in astronomy: I'm currently working on a project to build a new instrument for the Gemini Observatory to make images of exoplanets. When I'm not in Campbell Hall I enjoy hunting for edible mushrooms, growing orchids and hiking in Death Valley National Park.