Near the steps of Memorial Hall, physics professor John Howell and his students squint into the brilliant sunlight as they try to keep a brightly colored beach ball aloft.
Howell might be able to spin this as a science experiment — after all, drag force, terminal velocity and molecular motion all are in play. But those effects don’t explain why this scholar known internationally for his research on quantum optics decided to inflate a polyvinyl sphere and send it skyward on Bert Williams Mall.
Beyond physics, this exercise breaks the ice with new students, allowing them to quickly learn each other’s names and to view classmates as teammates.
Forget gravity and velocity — this is all about community.
“As the students hit the ball and say their name, barriers fall,” said Michael Ibba, dean of Schmid College of Science and Technology at Chapman University. “It humanizes John as the instructor — as someone his students can trust. Right from the start, they’re more willing to talk with him and ask questions.”
Howell understands that his field of study can be intimidating to non-physics majors such as those in his class “General Physics for the Life Sciences.” So from day one, he wants them to know that he and the class are in this together, and everyone involved has each other’s back.
Howell’s attention to student success comes at a time when across higher education, physics programs are seeing post-pandemic declines in enrollment. Howell and others at Chapman are determined to reverse that trend.
“I love physics, and I want my students to have a chance to love it, too,” the professor says.
Howell came to Chapman last fall, joining the university’s Institute for Quantum Studies. Ibba is grateful that his new faculty member not only brought his lab, his innovation awards and his more than 8,600 research citations, he also brought his enthusiasm for teaching general physics classes.
“What’s really great is that John has the skill set to show people that physics is interesting and why it’s important to them,” Ibba said. “He makes the experience accessible and immersive.”
Biology major Izzy Dhindsa ’23 admits that she started Howell’s course feeling stressed because she has “never been that great at physics.” But now she enjoys the subject.
“He relates the content to everyday life, which I really appreciate,” she says. “He changed my perspective about physics.”
Howell experienced his own transformation of thinking early in his career.
“I used to look at teaching as a burden because it took me away from my research,” he said. “But now it’s a joy. I like seeing the light come on in their eyes.”
That light didn’t come easily to student Alexis Shiber ’23. She remembers a class session last fall when, as Howell covered a particularly difficult topic, he saw looks of confusion throughout the room. Shiber was among those with a furrowed brow.
“The next class, he redid that lecture and went into more depth, with different examples to make sure we understood,” she says.
Howell’s concern for students extends beyond the classroom and the academic calendar. Last fall, as the holidays approached, class members received an invitation to join Howell and his family for Thanksgiving dinner, to ensure that no one spent the holiday alone.
“I was in awe when I saw that message,” Shiber says.
Those warm feelings of communal support overshadowed her initial reaction when Howell broke out the beach ball on the first day of class. It was hot out on the lawn, and Shiber just wanted to get back inside with the AC.
“But by the end, I knew everyone’s name. All the faces were familiar, and things felt comfortable,” she says.
As comfortable as classmates who are now friends, and physics concepts that no longer make her sweat.