Dr. Ronald A Brown’s teaching philosophy can be summed up in three letters: F-U-N.
When he joined the Oswego faculty in 1971, the physics department was fighting for survival. It had few majors, and needed to attract non-majors to remain viable. With a bachelor’s degree from Drexel University and master’s and doctorate from Purdue, Brown was hired away from Kent State. His mission: to make physics understandable for those fulfilling general education requirements and elementary education majors looking for fun ways to incorporate science into their classrooms. Vowing not to “kill ’em with calculus,” he devised his own method of hands-on, play-based instruction.
Brown tells the story of how, on his first day on campus, then-chair John O’Dwyer brought him to his classroom — and it was completely empty. Brown took the challenge and soon filled the room to overflowing with games, art, toys and books to intrigue and entrance his students.
Even now, 10 years into retirement, he greets visitors with science jokes (“There’s a restaurant on the moon. It has great food … but no atmosphere.”), shows off student artwork made with scotch tape and Polaroid sheets, and beguiles them with simple wooden folk toys that illustrate principles like gravity and kinetic energy.
“I created my own view of education,” teaching introductory physics courses for non-majors, such as Physics for Elementary Education Majors, and Ideas and Concepts in Physics, Brown says.
To illustrate electric circuitry, he would have students practice troubleshooting. To measure the speed of a moving object, he would have them estimate the velocity of a cat running, a baby crawling, or a drop of water dripping down a wall. “That’s one way to have fun with metrics,” he says.
“For every topic, the students had to understand what it is, how it worked and have a demonstration for it.”
His most popular activity was the annual egg drop. Students would devise protective coverings for a raw egg and drop the package from the third floor of Snygg Hall. “The students were very creative and it was funny to see what they did,” says Brown, who over the years witnessed students dropping eggs in loaves of bread (“It worked, but if it breaks, you have French toast.”) and suspended from parachutes. The fun illustrates the principle of inertia and demonstrates how an airbag protects the occupants in a car crash. “The students’ work was eggs-cellent, eggs-traordinary, and an intell-egg-shell eggs-ercise,” quips Brown.
Brown’s creative approach to physics won him a Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1974.
In retirement, Brown is immersed in the history of physics. He is fascinated by how the ancient Greeks invented abstract math not for practical uses but for the sheer fun of it, and intrepid souls kept the spirit of science alive during the so-called Dark Ages. And he reads voraciously, especially biographies of his three heroes: Galileo, Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, the favorite son of Brown’s hometown of Philadelphia.
A widower, with two sons and a daughter living in the Central New York area, Brown also loves to listen to music and play ragtime and classical pieces on the piano, indulge his reading passions of poetry and children’s literature, and correspond with teachers here and abroad about ways to bring more F-U-N into their own classrooms.
Filed Under: Faculty Hall of Fame