David Haase

David Haase, NC State University

North Carolina State University

2015 Excellence in Teaching Award Winner: David Haase, NC State University

Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, North Carolina State University physics professor David Haase watched the show Watch Mr. Wizard every Saturday morning. On screen, host Don Herbert would conduct experiments that demonstrated the science behind everyday occurrences — building a wind tunnel to explain how tornadoes function, for instance, fashioning a battery using sauerkraut and using a sound wave device to measure the noise in a seashell. Haase was hooked.

“I grew up in the Sputnik era, when there was a lot of interest generally in science, and somewhere along the way, I decided physics was something I could enjoy,” Haase said. "With physics, there are a lot of interesting puzzles. You can measure things; you can build things; you have a license to study most anything that’s interesting."  

Haase earned his bachelor’s degree in math and physics from Rice University in Houston, Texas, in 1970 and his master’s and PhD in physics from Duke in 1972 and 1975, respectively. Even as a student, he frequently found himself in the role of teacher: as an undergraduate, he ran all the physics test review sessions in the dorm; as a graduate student, he spent a year as a teaching assistant; and in the U.S. Army Reserves, a post he held while in graduate school, he taught national guardsmen about subjects like electronics.

In 1975, he joined the physics department at NC State, and his has been there ever since, more than 40 years.

The University of North Carolina Board of Governors awarded Haase the 2015 Excellence in Teaching award for NCSU. Since 1993, the board has offered annual excellence in teaching awards, which come with a stipend and a bronze medallion, to one professor at each of the 17 UNC constituent institutions. The board intends the awards to encourage, support and reward good teaching, which members see as the primary responsibility of North Carolina’s public universities and the NC School of Science and Math, the country’s first public, residential high school for gifted students.

Haase is the fourth physics faculty member to receive the Board of Governors' award at NC State. "The department strongly emphasizes and nurtures good teaching, as well as research,” Haase said.

NCSU astrophysics professor Dr. Stephen Reynolds, who has worked with Haase in the physics department since 1985, describes Haase as cooperative, constructive and supportive of his colleagues and students. He's earned the regard of his colleagues in both his research and his teaching, Reynolds said.

"Dr. Haase is a quiet, understated individual, but he speaks with authority,” Reynolds said. "His penetrating sense of humor has plenty of scope in the environment of a large university, but he is never mean or abrasive. He inspires great loyalty among students, who think very highly of him.”

Haase’s former student Oindree Banerjee graduated in 2013 with a major in physics and minor in math and now studies in the astroparticle physics PhD program at Ohio State University.

"He is a true experimentalist and a great teacher,” Banerjee said. "The motivation, passion, experience, wisdom and enthusiasm he brings to both those roles are absolutely outstanding."

CONNECTING NCSU TO K-12 TEACHERS AND STUDENTS ACROSS THE STATE

Haase has long devoted himself to helping science teachers across the state improve and refine their teaching methods. Charged with recruiting undergraduate majors early in his career, Haase approached the task by visiting high schools throughout North Carolina with a red box of materials to carry out demonstrations. He also began leading training workshops and Saturday programs that helped science teachers learn the most effective ways to reach their students.

In 1991, Haase was appointed the founding director of The Science House, an outreach program bridging the science-related resources of NC State and North Carolina K-12 students and educators, a post he held for 16 years.

Though based at NCSU in Raleigh, the Science House currently has four satellite locations — in Lenoir, Jacksonville, Asheville and Denton — and serves 5,000 teachers and 35,000 students per year. In addition to providing hands-on learning opportunities in math and science for children in kindergarten through high school, The Science House runs science teacher training workshops and courses, focusing particularly on rural schools.

“It’s hard to recruit good science teachers to rural areas,” Haase said. “They have less access to many things we take for granted in the city. Working with those teachers, helping them upgrade their content and pedagogical knowledge — that’s been a big deal for the university.”

The Science House also tries to address the shortage of qualified high school physics teachers in North Carolina. "There are a lot of schools that offer no more than one section of high school physics, and it’s often taught by a math teacher,” Haase said.

“Education is not a problem to be solved — it’s never solved; it’s only a situation you can make better,” he continued. “I think the things Science House has done have made things better... I think we’re making a dent.”

In addition to his work with The Science House, Haase has served on national committees concerned with physics education in both K-12 schools and universities — and on a national task force studying and publicizing the shortage of qualified high school teachers. He has also co-authored a high school physics textbook and co-edited a book of student learning activities.

Research-wise, Haase focuses on low-temperature physics. Using liquid helium and other cryogenic systems, he makes refrigerators that can cool nuclear material to a few tenths of a degree above absolute zero, which help scientists carry out research on topics including the nuclear reactions that occurred directly after The Big Bang. In his work, Haase collaborates with physicists from the three Triangle universities at Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory on the Duke University campus and at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

NCSU physics professor Chris Gould stressed that because of vacuum leaks and other such problems, working in Haase’s field requires a great deal of patience and care. "David is a superb mentor for a generation of NC State graduate and undergraduate students, many of whom have continued on to prominent positions in low temperature physics,” Gould said.

James Rowland IV graduated from NCSU in 2013 with a double major in math and physics and is currently studying theoretical condensed matter physics at Ohio State University. Haase oversaw a research project Rowland conducted his junior year. "He was an excellent research mentor,” Rowland said. "His approach is hands-off, and the projects he gave me were designed more to help me than himself.

Additionally, Haase taught Rowland an important skill that has served him well in graduate school.

“He taught me the importance of simplifying a problem, leaving only the key components,” he said. “This is an essential part of problem solving, and I learned it from Dr. Haase."

IN THE CLASSROOM

Though Haase now has about 85 students in each of his classes, he wants his students to feel that he’s talking to them alone. “When I was young, I used to remember all their names, but I can’t do that anymore,” he said. Nevertheless, he said, “I want them to think I’m talking to them, that I’m concerned with what each person as an individual needs to learn. I try to be as patient as I can in helping them work.”

In front of the classroom, Haase tries to accommodate a variety of learning styles; he lectures; he conducts demonstrations; he asks his students to solve problems; he runs labs. “It’s all about how physics fits into the real world, how physics explains what you see on an everyday basis,” he said. “A lot of people think it’s a subject that needs to be put aside. It’s not; it’s a basic facet of all technology.”

In the last lecture of one class, for example, he teaches students about the physics involved in making their cell phones function. “There are about 50 physics miracles that occur to make your cell phone work,” he said, outlining the phenomenon behind the system transmitting signals to a receiver, determining the location of the two phones involved in the call and differentiating between devices placing calls near the two call participants. “You could probably teach a whole course on how cellphones work,” he said.

"Dr. Haase's teaching is motivated by a deep understanding of how students learn,” Reynolds said. "He isn't flashy, but he holds students' interest with well-thought-out progressions of ideas, with frequent examples and questions for them to consider and with demonstrations where appropriate."

Banerjee said she appreciates that Haase values his classroom as much as his lab. "He manages to do great research AND take teaching very seriously, which is rare,” said Banerjee. "As scientists we are pushed to produce results, make discoveries, but it is equally important to mentor and teach the generation after us so that they can carry on the great work of science. Dr. Haase is one of those few great scientists who actually follow this principle."

Story by Christina Cooke, Freelance Writer
Photos contributed by NC State University

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