The Blue Banner, March 24, 2005 (UNCA Student Paper)

Meet the faculty: UNCA science professor Michael Ruiz

By Adam Hillberry
Staff Reporter

In retrospect of 20 some years of teaching, Dr. Michael J. Ruiz, winner of the 2004 UNCA Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching, continually esteems UNCA and discusses the work that goes into his courses.

"I teach astronomy with Dr. Booker, which is team taught." said Ruiz. "I'm teaching Light and Visual Phenomena, and that course is one we hope will be clustered. I'm also teaching quantum mechanics for physics majors. I've been teaching at UNCA since 1978."

Ruiz graduated from St. Joseph University with a B.S. in physics, and then went on to the University of Maryland for his graduate studies, completing his M.S. and finally his Ph.D. in theoretical physics. He came to UNCA, soon becoming the chair of the physics department, which he held for about 20 years.

If you've ever been in Dr. Ruiz's class, the comfort one experiences is all based on an education that, like us, began with liberal arts. Ruiz said he commends the liberal arts program at UNCA

"Well, what brought me to UNCA was the liberal arts," said Ruiz. "St. Joseph is liberal arts. I believe in liberal arts, I believe in taking courses that have breadth. I believe the education is better.

"I believe that in a real life situation, you have to deal with people, and the humanities background enables you to deal effectively with people in a way that you can't if you became very narrow in your field."

The liberal arts ideal is one that Ruiz has become used to. Ruiz said understanding the possibilities that exist in this type of school is an aspect that attracted him the most.

"It seemed that at UNCA there were more opportunities," said Ruiz. "It was a growing school. "It had only been a four-year college for less than two decades. It wasn't set in its ways, in a manner that, lets say, a school that had been a four-year school for a century. So, I found there would be more opportunities to innovate."

Coming to UNCA's liberal arts atmosphere allowed him to succeed in other aspects of science of science related to teaching. Ruiz said he co-founded the Undergraduate Research Program with John Stevens, chemistry professor.

"When Merritt Moseley joined us, in literature, we got the national conference started at UNCA," said Ruiz. "That's something that meant a lot to me.

"In 1991, Caltech asked us to have a conference at our school for the centential. We're going to celebrate the 20th anniversary next year, in 2006. They're coming here to UNCA. That is something very rewarding that we could have that impact."

Revolutionizing the online textbook, Ruiz, with help from his computer programming son, Evan, developed a course program that students use to facilitate most aspects of his classes.

"We put together, with some grant money from various sources, courses for the light class, the sound class and astronomy class, what we believe is an innovative way," said Ruiz. "We use an integration of media like movies, clips, little two or three-minute science demonstrations, Java applets to interact, a couple of flash demonstrations, and online homework and reading of the textbook with feedback.

"So, as a student you can answer questions and get feedback, if you understand the material."

This led to Ruiz getting some recognition on CNN a few years back and is some he values as "a very rewarding experience." Ruiz said it wouldn't be possible without the flexibility of a broader study ideal encompassed by UNCA, allowing him to pursue other skills to better teach his classes.

"Sometimes people who teach high school go to my Web site and want to use some of the stuff, because they don't have the equipment to demonstrate something," said Ruiz. "So when I go to meetings, people come up to me and say 'I've been using your sound applets at my high school.' It helps out other teachers and saves the student and UNCA money."

In Ruiz's classes, he tends to include anecdotes that relate to his class. It's not unusual for him to play the piano, show clips from movies like "Ocean's Eleven" and television features like magic tricks performed by the Masked Magician and David Copperfield, all while aiding in the students' learning. Ruiz said a common phrase he uses is "among friends", or the idea of approximating, that he uses to simplify the material for the students' benefit.

"Well, say that if I owe you $8, we're going to make it $10, keep the change, among friends," said Ruiz. "The art of being a scientist is to do that whenever possible, to make something simplified and to know when they are valid and when you can do the "among friends" thing.

"Without going to a computer or a book, you can do a calculation on your own feet, among friends, and get a value that is pretty precise."