professor
Matthew O'Dowd

Mar 2010

I must say that after hearing about how Frontiers is every scientist's and non-scientist's least favorite class, I was worried about the semester to come. However, thanks to Matt, I've been finding the semester not only tolerable but very enjoyable. Even though it's his first semester teaching, Matt has a nice array of interesting animations, youtube clips, and xkcd comics that put the science in perspective, show us how the science is used in Hollywood, and give us a good laugh. Since he is an astrophysicist, he definitely enhanced the astronomy lectures with a lot of interesting information that was not conveyed to us in lecture. Yet even in earth science, he tied together concepts and presented us with questions - some of which he didn't even definitively know the answer to - that definitely intrigued us. I think that the problem that typically occurs in FoS is that the teachers and the students both consider the course to be an unnecessary yet mandatory diversion from their studies, but this is not the case with Matt. He definitely puts a lot of time into the course, as is exemplified by the above and the fact that he goes to all the weekly lectures not only once, but twice (there’s a teachers only exclusive lecture that we are unfortunately not invited to). Matt also gives specific feedback to us on all of our homework assignments, and he provides interesting commentary on the projects that we do during class. Most importantly, though, Matt manages to cater to scientists and non-scientists alike. I think all Frontiers discussion teachers should take up his practice of having students send in one or more questions after Monday's lecture. Often, I think this is the most interesting part of discussion because everyone can inquire about his or her personal interests and discuss intriguing aspects of the lectures on a variety of levels. Still, there are pros and cons to every class, and this is no exception. Overall, the material still has the potential to be a lot more trenchant than it is, the class has the tendency to blankly stare at the wall for two hours (granted, its 6pm on a Tuesday), and the departmental discussion activities can seem as if they were designed for middle school students. Also, if you care about this, the grading seems harder than it is in most other classes, but it will be worth it to have a good discussion anyway. Some of my friends in my physics class (2800) said they spent an hour or two on the homework, studied another hour for the exams, and got an easy A+. Yet Matt expects more than just a series of computations followed by a one sentence explanation on the homework questions if you want a check plus (which is a vague grade that is roughly equivalent to an A). Still, don't hold yourself back from taking this class simply because you might get challenged a little more. Matt is very fair, and he seems more annoyed by the department's mysterious grading policy than we are. In conclusion, take Matt’s discussion because it is interesting, enjoyable, and much better than the horror stories I heard from my friends in other sections. You’re at Columbia to learn from awesome teachers and embrace a well-rounded core curriculum, so take up the opportunity to have a bit of an extra challenge while learning and enjoying yourself more too. Choose Matt’s class and you won’t regret it!!