Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research

Excellence in Teaching Award

Leo Piilonen, Department of Physics

January 2018

Leo Piilonen, professor in the Department of Physics, is the winner of the January Excellence in Teaching award. This award, given by the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, recognizes effective, engaged, and dynamic educators at Virginia Tech.

Piilonen has been teaching and working in the Department of Physics for 30 years. He’s currently teaching an Electricity of Magnetism course with 60 students in a SCALE-UP classroom. “Technically I have a podium at the center, but I wander around the room,” he said. “There’s no front of the room, there’s just monitors and projection screens on a wall . . . It’s a little bit chaotic, but they seem to like it.”

Feedback on Piilonen’s SPOT surveys also indicate a positive reaction to the group work he incorporates in class. “They get to schmooze a lot, and kibbitz; it’s a more profitable approach,” he said. “They learn from each other and that works; learning from peers tends to be more comfortable for the students.”

Piilonen said he works to keep students engaged during class time through hands-on activities. “If they’re just sitting there listening to me, they’re not going to retain near as much material as if they have to put it into practice themselves, on the spot.” He said. “They’re doing worksheets and trying to apply the things they’ve read and heard about from me in the past five minutes to a concrete situation.”

Because of the nature of the class, computer use is inevitable. Piilonen counts it as part of his “willingness to allow chaos” approach. “Quite often they’ll use the technical tools available on their computers, like Mathematica, to help them through some of the math in these questions,” he said, noting that he doesn’t mind if sometimes students are off-task. “I’ve never felt threatened by it. They paid to be there, and they’re paying me to help them along and if they choose not to take advantage of what they’re doing, that’s their choice.”

While Piilonen encourages students to work in groups and share the load, he also accommodates students who choose to work alone. “I made the mistake in the past of forcing students to work in groups, and I’ve assigned the groups,” he said. “It’s more challenging if they work alone, because of the time concern in the classroom, but it’s a choice they make.”

Another choice Piilonen offers students is in the final class project. Students have the option to build an antenna and hook it up to a television in the classroom to prove it works, or to take a walk and photograph 10 different types of antennas and describe each one.

“You have them all learning something about antennas, but it depends on what they’re most comfortable with,” he said. “Then we take a day at the end of the semester where we look at everyone’s projects.”

For Piilonen, teaching is all about Virginia Tech’s motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). “[The students] can all get the material, every one of them,” he said. “They don’t have to be super smart; it’s all something within the realm of capability of every one of them, if only I can reach them in an effective way.”