Dr John Debs

Australian Award for University Teaching - Award for Teaching Excellence
ANU MakerSpace
Research School of Physics and Engineering
ANU College of Science

John is the founder of the ANU MakerSpace (makerspace.anu.edu.au), and is a Lecturer and Researcher from the Research School of Physics and Engineering. His research background bridges gaps between scientific disciplines ranging from nanotechnology and surface science, through to optics, lasers, and quantum physics. Now largely teaching focused, John believes passionately that people "learn by doing", and that a significant part of our role as educators is to inspire and motivate our students.  Supporting them with the resources and facilities to achieve these goals, while important, is secondary. Since 2012, he has taught Foundations of Physics at ANU, where students learn to "think like a physicist" in a blended environment of inquiry and project-based learning. Thinking like a physicist, really embodies a set of skills transferrable skills that are a license for problem solving, and reflects the fact that physics-trained students end up in a wide variety of industries and areas.

This approach to inquiry and project-based learning resulted in him successfully lobbying the need for an interdisciplinary project space at ANU, culminating in the building and growth of the ANU Makerspace since early 2016. The space boasts tools and a community of peers who help each other build and fabricate solutions to problems for research and education. Users are from a wide variety of backgrounds, ranging from Art to Science, undergraduate to professor; with Art, Physics, and Engineering making up the equal majority of now over 400 users. The creative environment has supported everything from STEM-based student start-up companies, through to the team who designed and fabricated the trophies for the 2018 Australians of the Year.

Q&A

Q: What motivates and inspires you in your teaching?

Seeing those genuine Eureka moment's in students is all I need to motivate me. This is especially rewarding in a discipline like Physics, where often the societal perception is "Physics is hard". Every year, I reach hundreds of students, many of whom share with me that they never thought they could understand physics. Combined with an approach that teaches them skills over content, it's incredibly satisfying to awaken a self-learning and inquisitiveness in students that seems all but lost from 12 years of traditional primary and secondary education.

Q: What do you enjoy most about being a teacher?

The frequent surprises from my students. Even after 6 years of teaching the same course, I'm about the only thing that gets stale. Every year, I am delighted by their creativeness and ingenuity in solving problems. Something which I feel we foster in our classrooms at Physics. I additionally love the freedom and autonomy that teaching gives us at ANU - we can be bold and try "crazy" things. This all ties into feeling like I'm having a real impact on society, every day I teach.

Q: How do you motivate, inspire and engage your students in and out of the classroom?

Honestly, I try to keep it diverse, relevant, and most of all FUN! Not everyone learns the same way, so we have a variety of assessment approaches. Students are allowed internet access in my exam, and I've had them leave telling me it's the hardest and most fun exam they've ever sat! We also do our best to build a sense of community in the course with both the peers and the teaching time. Exciting demos, examples of research, social media groups, and of course, giving them access to the makerspace.

Q: What qualities do you need to be an outstanding teacher in higher education?

First and foremost is a passion for teaching and a genuine care for students and their outcomes. Teaching is a human activity, and thus not a rigid, structured one. Fearlessness is also important. Sometimes this means being harsh for their own good. Sometimes it means being fearless to try something your colleagues might not like, or goes outside the norms. You also need to practice what you teach! If I expect my students to be creative, then I too have to be creative! Finally, having a goal of teaching them how to learn rather than what to learn, will serve them for many years to come. They WILL forget all the exam content! Knowledge is cheap. Skills are earned.

Q: What are the ongoing challenges in developing your teaching practices?

Even with all the energy and enthusiasm, often you have moments where "they just don't get it". It's especially challenging with larger or introductory courses, but you have to step back and look at the bigger picture and realise what you're doing has a greater good. There are also challenges with mixed signals from the institution and higher-ed sector: often teaching is celebrated, but then at the same time we're told that it won't help our career. I think we're currently in transitionary period where teaching is being recognised as a key part of our core business, but it can sometimes be hard to go the extra mile for these reasons.

Q: Tell us about an approach you have taken in the classroom of which you've been proud.

Although it absolutely petrified me at the time, I'm so glad that we decided to start grading our inquiry-based labs by asking students to create short video presentations. Not only are we able to quickly ascertain the level of a student's understanding from these videos, but it gives them a creative outlet for a discipline (physics) traditionally seen as non-creative. They surprise us every year, and often their videos explain things better than my own teaching team! Finally, it's a skill that they can take forward in their career to many places

Q: If the VC asked you how you would change teaching and learning at ANU, what would you say?

"Vice-Chancellor, there should be other ways that we can accredit students with degrees besides formal coursework. I see students come through the Makerspace with an arts background who learn how to code because they need to. Or an engineer that discovers a passion for design and web development. A student who did poorly on their electronics exam, yet successfully build a control system for an RC plane. How about a degree by portfolio?"