Cal Poly Open House, All That Glitters Green and Gold 2014, Faculty Address

I was asked to give the 2014 Cal Poly Open House, All That Glitters Green and Gold 3 minute faculty address to about 600+ prospective students and parents for the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences, College of Architecture and Environmental Design, and the Orfalea College of Business. I somehow managed to get “quantum”, “atheist”, “delocalize”, and “live long and prosper” in there. In hindsight, asking someone from physics to do this for these Colleges is a bit like asking Snape to give the opening address to Hufflepuff. Still, it was great fun and a true honor. Here is a transcript of the speech.

Thank you President Armstrong. Welcome and good morning! I’m Tom Gutierrez, a professor in the Physics Department here at Cal Poly. I’m also currently the advisor for the Society of Physics Students, Sigma Pi Sigma (the physics honor society), and student club AHA (the Alliance of Happy Atheists).

How many of you watch or have seen the TV show The Big Bang Theory? Sadly, in my department it’s basically considered a documentary. I don’t watch it regularly, but to appreciate where I’m coming from: understand that I when I first saw it mistook it for a NOVA special on how physicists can actually improve their social skills. With that awkward introduction…

Why am I, a physics professor, speaking to you today? I’m here to give you a brief faculty perspective of Cal Poly. Cal Poly is a comprehensive polytechnic university that embraces a Learn-By-Doing philosophy. And physics, the most fundamental of all sciences, is at the very core of this mission. For a comprehensive polytechnic university in the 21st century, physics is the technical analog to the “liberal arts.” All technical majors across all Colleges at the University must take physics and almost all majors allow physics as an elective or as a general education course. This frequently puts my department at the nexus of the University and gives me the pleasure of interacting with a large cross section of our students on a regular basis.

I teach a wide spectrum of courses in the physics department. While it’s true most of my students are from engineering and the College of Science and Math, some of the most hard working and thoughtful students I’ve had have come from the Colleges represented in the session this morning, which include business, animal science, architecture, and forestry majors to name a few. To facilitate the Learn-By-Doing philosophy in practical terms, Cal Poly fosters amongst faculty what is known as the Teacher-Scholar Model. Faculty across all Colleges are carefully selected 1) for their passion for teaching and working with students and 2) for being engaged with active work in their fields. In my own experience, most educational institutions choose one or the other focus for faculty: a professor is either a teacher or a scholar. While there are many fine examples of each amongst today’s universities, one vocation typically suffers at the expense of the other. However, Cal Poly celebrates both forms of professional expression for individual faculty — and this generates a powerful and singular learning environment for the students who come here. Faculty engaged in their fields can bring real-world knowledge and research into the classroom. Conversely, teachers can bring their students and pedagogical wisdom into the real world.

My own work in particle physics, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, has allowed me to bring students to work at an underground lab in Italy and experience the joys of doing cutting-edge science. Students then bring this experience to their jobs and graduate programs. The message I’m getting from my colleagues at other institutions and in industry? “Send us more Cal Poly students!” Faculty at Cal Poly are allied with the student. We want you to graduate as lifelong learners who find a productive career and make a difference in the world. At Cal Poly, we want you to grow as a person and to challenge your pre-existing assumptions about how the world works. We want you to discover your Personal Project; think big, make collaborations, and not just dream, but discover how to translate those dreams into actions.

Anyway, enjoy the rest of your stay and come visit the Physics Department and CoSaM open house in the Baker Science building if you get a chance. May your quantum wave function always remain delocalized. Live long and prosper. Thank you!