The Blue Banner, October 25, 2007 (UNCA Student Paper)

Physics professor blends fun with studies to engage students

These classes involve
lots of toys, demonstrations and lots
of fun applets. I've always felt that
I should champion the general
student. I've kind of dedicated
my career to it.

MICHAEL RUIZ
physics professor

By Lauren Barnett
Staff Writer

Often described by students as crazy, energetic and passionate, Professor Michael Ruiz of the physics department only offered chuckles and nods in response, but he said he's OK with people labeling him as all three.

"My goal is to be the best teacher I can be and to inspire students to relate to the material," Ruiz said. "You have to make sure they stay interested when they're not physics majors, you see? I make them stay interested and pay attention."

As a teacher of one of the largest classes offered at UNC Asheville, The Physics of Sound and Music, remembering names and keeping students awake is part of the challenge, but it's also part of the fun, Ruiz said.

"During one class, Ruiz turned off all the lights, played a video of The Doors' 'Light My Fire' and ran around the room with glowsticks," said Crystal Edwards, senior psychology student. "It felt more like a party than a classroom."

PROVIDED BY UNC ASHEVILLE
Michael Ruiz, physics professor, has worked at
UNC Asheville for almost 30 years, and loves
being at a liberal arts school.

Ruiz tries to foster this mood so students will both learn and be entertained, he said.

"I personally like teaching the large classes. It energizes me," Ruiz said. "I do better in large classes."

Ruiz also incorporates his own interests of photography, magic and music into his lessons.

"If I can bring my son in, we can play a duet in a humanities lecture. It adds much more," Ruiz said. "We can give an exciting three-minute performance to capture the spirit of impressionism, and I'm there to do that."

Ruiz loves to teach The Physics of Sound and Music and Light and Visual Phenomena. These classes are designed for the nonscience students at a liberal arts college, he said.

"These classes involve lots of toys, demonstrations and lots of fun applets," Ruiz said. "I've always felt that I should champion the general student. I've kind of dedicated my career to it."

Students need some background information before delving into a difficult subject, Ruiz said.

"It would be like someone trying to learn about Dostoevsky and saying, 'I'm not even going to talk to you until you know Russian first,'" Ruiz said. "You say, 'What's going on? Why can't I read a translation, you know? I don't want to major in Russian, but I want the benefit.'"

Many students use these courses to fulfill general education requirements, and never would have imagined choosing to take a mathematically based course in college.

"I really don't like math, and I try to stay away from it as much as possible," said Emmy Griffin, senior international studies student. "Ruiz's class is great because I am entertained and learning so many applications of the concepts."

Ruiz came to UNC Asheville after finishing his doctorate in 1978 and was attracted by its size and similarity to the liberal arts college he attended, he said.

"Liberal arts is great because you have to do it all, and you really want to do it all," Ruiz said. "You can draw on the fact that you have to take courses out of your major and get thrown into a class with different majors. If I was doing my field strictly all the time, I would not have this interaction with these different modes of thinking."

Ruiz's liberal arts degree helped him relate to students and people better, he said.

"It trains you to see different perspectives, to see the world from another's eyes and in life to just be happier that you have an understanding of art, music and different things than just your specialty," Ruiz said.

As a faculty member for almost 30 years, Ruiz has contributed more than just energetic lectures to the campus community. He's teamed up with Professors John Stevens and Merritt Moseley to start the National Conference for Undergraduate Research that continues to thrive 20 years after its inception.

"What sold me on the small liberal arts school was undergraduate research," Ruiz said. "I was able to work with a professor over a period of a year and a half. When I got to grad school, I was so prepared they wanted me to skip a course."

Ruiz has also received national attention for his courses that offer computer-based lessons, labs and student forums. These individualized resources force students to actively learn the material, Ruiz said.

"I put the students in front of the computers, and they start clicking away," Ruiz said. "Just watching them compared to the old days is a more exciting learning experience. Actually putting your hands on the equipment helps you learn."