Dr John Debs earns national recognition for teaching methods

29 November 2022

To have our professional body recognise this work and see the value in taking such an approach to education further validates that it's worth investing the significant time it takes to change the way we teach at universities.

Dr John Debs, Senior Lecturer with the Research School of Physics and Engineering and Founder and Director of ANU MakerSpace, has been awarded the Australian Institute of Physics (AIP) Education Medal, the first time a member of ANU has received this recognition. The AIP Education Medal recognises outstanding contributions to tertiary physics education in Australia.  

John has been recognised for his instrumental work "in the design and implementation of the Mike Gore Centre for Physics Education at ANU, comprising innovative learning spaces, most significantly the transformative 'ANU MakerSpace'. Born out of a physics approach, the ANU MakerSpace has influenced students and staff across ANU, leading to changes in pedagogy, and unique interdisciplinary experiences for a growing membership of now over 2400 people." 

John said he was honoured by the recognition. 

"I am absolutely delighted and honoured! My approach is/was pretty radical when I started 10 years ago - especially for physics education. To have our professional body recognise this work and see the value in taking such an approach to education further validates that it's worth investing the significant time it takes to change the way we teach at universities. It means that I can continue to share this approach with conviction and encourage colleagues around the world to try and teach physics in this way.  

"I'm especially excited about sharing my work at the AIP Congress in December and in an upcoming article for the AIP Magazine. I'm also especially proud to be the first member of ANU to receive the medal." 

In his time at ANU, John has changed the way physics is taught, taking lessons beyond the textbook using innovative teaching strategies like hands-on challenges to teach students to 'think like a physicist'. 

We recently interviewed John to learn more about his unique approach to physics education and what makes the ANU MakerSpace such an asset to the ANU community. 

How do you teach students to 'think like a physicist'?  

The stereotype of physics and physics education is that it's all about the math - learning a bunch of equations and solving them by working through textbook problems. And unfortunately, there are large parts of Australia and indeed the world where this is the norm of how Physics is taught.  

Physics at is core is about making observations of our world and producing models or theories that help explain and predict it. These models lead to deeper understanding, better technology, and better tests of those models. They advance society and knowledge. Of course, the maths is important as it allows us to quantify our theories of the universe, but "thinking like a physicist" is really about making models, doing estimates, being critical, and importantly, building systems that help us test and measure if those models are correct.  

I would argue most children are born scientists, with a curious mind and an interest in breaking things apart to help understand them. So my goal, especially with our first-years, is to teach them these skill sets of critical thinking, model building, and estimation. To help them understand there isn't always one right answer, or one way to solve a problem. Most physics-trained people end up working outside of physics or physics-research, and it's because these skills are highly transferrable. Many people think like a physicist but aren't necessarily physicists!  

You were recognised for the innovative way you approached physics education at ANU. What makes your approach unique? What methods have you found to be the most successful?  

We really flipped the typical approach to university STEM courses on its head. Rather than tell students what our best models of the world are using lectures, we try to help students discover and verify those models with hands-on challenges. This is based on the experience of doing experimental research where you don't always know where to start, and you often start with observation. It's how many of our PhD students learn.  

I focus my courses on a 'lab', which gives students a challenge each week, but without an instruction manual like most undergraduate labs. For example, we might give students a battery, a magnet, a wire, and a screw, and challenge them to make a motor with these 4 objects, and measure/estimate its speed. Supported by some basic concepts and group of agile tutors, student then tinker, test, and play until they find a solution that works.  

These solutions usually spread around the room and there is an air of excitement. Then everyone is motivated to try and understand why it works at all, how it changes if you flip the magnet around, etc. We are essentially mimicking a research environment in small, constrained, weekly projects.  

In many ways, our role as educators is to inspire and motivate learning. We never really 'teach' anyone, but rather put them in a situation where they are motivated to connect the dots themselves. Those 'ah ha' moments are really what teaching is all about. I think my approach has been successful because people are motivated by the challenge, and ownership of their project. Students have designed their own experiment or solution and want to see it through. They have memorable moments that leads to better retention and better understanding.  

We then marry these experiences with diverse and novel assessment. Some of it is familiar - like textbook problems. Others encourage creativity, like student produced videos that highlight their process and learnings in the class. We even take our exams to a radical level and design them so that students need internet access to complete them. This better simulates the real world where they might need to do some research to find the answer to a problem. The exam is tough, but worth much less than typical science exams, and thus with reduced pressure, students find it challenging but rewarding.  

What is the ANU MakerSpace? What does it offer students and the wider ANU community?  

Among other terms, my approach to teaching can be called project-based learning. People are motivated by their projects and often can surprise themselves with what they are able to teach themselves. This is something that can be common in some disciplines, but often isn't in science - at least not until later year research projects.  

Another aspect that we sometimes lack in STEM education is diverse perspectives from people with different disciplines and backgrounds. When I took over the Foundations of Physics unit in 2012, I had the benefit of having a diverse cohort of students. But we didn't have anywhere on campus where people from even broader backgrounds could interact and solve problems together. Where a first year might meet a postdoc and learn about what they are working on. Where an artist could share their practice with an electronics engineer. I have always seen value in engaging broadly, and while I could share these perspectives with my physics students, I felt we needed a place on campus for people all kinds of people from ANU to come and solve problems related to anything from their own research to education, to personal projects. 

The term makerspace is relatively new, but the idea isn't - they are community spaces that offer shared resources and knowledge. Some older versions of this might be a woodworking guild, or a ceramic society. Key to them is the community and culture of sharing ideas, knowledge, and peer to peer teaching. The term makerspace popped up alongside digital fabrication (i.e. computer controlled fabrication) which made a variety of fabrication techniques more accessible to people without specialists skills. Communities who needed to share resources for their own personal hobbies or projects started setting them up and helping each other. While many versions now exist, in the academic context, they are relatively new.  

I saw an opportunity to support more project-based learning at ANU, and achieve better interaction between parts of the university by using the makerspace concept to bring people together. With a clear mission, we started a pilot makerspace: 

  • Where undergraduates, graduates, teachers and researchers from all disciplines come together; that all but demands frequent interaction.  

  • With real research tools, the knowledge, and the resources for people to experiment, investigate, work on projects, and solve problems.  

  • Where knowledge effortlessly flows between peers, teachers, staff and academics alike. A truly research-led teaching environment, providing students the confidence to be true 'self-learners'.  

Since opening in 2016, the ANU MakerSpace has grown to span 3 locations at ANU, with 6 staff that have supported over 2500 members from all parts and demographics of ANU. Anyone at ANU can join for free to access a range of tools, design experts, and a large community of makers to work projects that related to their education, research, or personal projects. We have helped people achieve endless goals in that time. Examples include supporting the Solar Car team to run their first race, enabling start-ups to achieve their minimal viable products, helping someone mend their jeans, contributing to the fabrication of the Australian of the Year Award trophies at the ANU School of Art & Design glass workshop, and providing over 20,000 units of PPE to frontline healthcare workers during the Covid19 pandemic through the support of around 200 volunteers.  

 We have helped over 30 convenors bring projects into their courses, and countless researchers quickly solve problems in their labs or better communicate their research. Within physics, students can now build their own engines to better understand thermal physics, or they might make wacky multi-armed pendulums that they can then model with abstract theory. A saxophonist can design and fabricate his own mouthpiece, and then model the acoustic qualities of it.  

I would say we have more than achieved our mission statement. So, the ANU MakerSpace really is for anyone at ANU. Everyone is a maker, even if they don't yet identify as one. Some people cook, some people write poetry, some people knit, and some people build high precision sensors. All are forms of making. Making is fundamentally human, and I'd encourage everyone to come check us out.  


More information about the ANU MakerSpace

Take a 360 virtual tour of the ANU MakerSpace

Video Explainer - What is the ANU MakerSpace