An ancient proverb by the Chinese philosopher Xunzi printed on a plain piece of paper hangs on the wall of Joshua Samani’s office.
“Tell me, and I forget. Teach me, and I remember. Involve me and I learn,” the proverb reads.
Samani, a lecturer in the physics and astronomy department, who is known for his interactive teaching style, received the My Last Lecture Award at a ceremony in De Neve Auditorium on Tuesday. The award, created by the UCLA Alumni Scholars’ Club, honors a student-nominated professor and gives him or her the opportunity to lecture as though it were his or her last lecture on earth.
Samani said he wanted his lecture to teach students about the effectiveness of simplifying complicated topics and the importance of thinking scientifically in their everyday lives.
To do this, he taught students about the principle of least action, a theory that is not commonly taught, but that explains the motion of nearly every system in the universe, he said. To explain the theory, which involves advanced mathematical concepts, he used only simple math and narratives.
If an astronaut is floating away from a space station, what would be the direction of her motion, Samani asked the audience. Students discussed the question until they arrived at a conclusion, and submitted their answers via iClicker.
He explained that objects could in theory undergo an infinite amount of paths, but they end up choosing the path that minimizes a quantity known as action, which is related to how fast the object moves along its trajectory.
Samani’s interactive lecture demonstrated how students can use discussion and reason to understand one of the most important theories in physics in one hour.
“You can’t really understand difficult concepts in math and science just by reading something,” Samani said. “You have to get your hands dirty and explore and build intuition about it.”
In one class, Samani shot a piece of metal out of a large magnetic cannon at a toy monkey to demonstrate the concepts of force, acceleration and gravity, said Jonathan Tse, a second-year physiological sciences student who is in Samani’s class.
Tse said he likes that Samani uses tangible illustrations to discuss complicated topics.
“He makes physics bearable,” Tse said. “I actually pay attention in class, and with the way he presents himself, he is able to grab your attention and hold onto it. He holds my attention longer than most professors.”
Samani said his favorite memories with students often involve seeing them develop their understanding and confidence.
He said he remembers an instance during his first quarter teaching at UCLA in 2014 when a student who was failing his class said she wanted to the drop the class.
Because the student seemed to be genuinely interested in learning the course material, Samani said he felt sad and surprised that she was failing. He told her that he did not believe the issue was with her understanding of the material but rather with her confidence.
The student decided to stay in the course after Samani encouraged her to do so and received the seventh highest grade on the final. Samani said he could tell she had a deeper understanding of material than most of the class and had regained her motivation.
“She went from failing the class to getting an A,” Samani said. “It’s nice having a concrete example like that. I tell students this story and it helps motivate them.”
Krish Kabra, a second-year physics student, said he thinks Samani’s open personality and charm distinguish him from other professors.
“He is always telling jokes, and he has one of those sense of humors that’s very friendly,” Kabra said.
Michael Gutperle, a professor in the physics and astronomy department, who served as Samani’s physics Ph.D. advisor while Samani was still a graduate student, said Samani’s students routinely say his classes are among the best they’ve ever taken.
“Josh’s true passion was teaching and innovating education,” Gutperle said. “It’s clear whatever he teaches, the students love his class.”
Contributing reports from Prateek Puri, Daily Bruin contributor.