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Reflection on teaching some friends to sail

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During the summer of 2009, I rented a 25-foot sailboat with some friends and took them sailing on Lake St. Claire in southeast Michigan. There were six of us, and being the only one who actually knew how to sail, I took it upon myself to teach everyone. We all seemed to enjoy our day out on the lake, despite my insistence that each of my friends "take the helm" and experience sailing the boat at one point or another. They all did so, some of them tentatively and others more boldly, and each of them got to feel what it was like to harness the wind. This is the feeling that I love when I'm sailing - complete control over your motion without any dependency on nonrenewable fuels or complex electrical components, and this is the feeling that I love to share with others. While I recognize that it's not for everyone, I do feel like one of my friends in particular really got this experience, and he ended up sailing the boat for the majority of our time on the lake. After I showed him some basics, I felt confident enough leaving him with the helm while I relaxed. There were still some moments when I would notice us falling off course and remind him to make corrections, but for the most part it was smooth sailing (idiom intended). 

At one point, he asked me a question that I had trouble responding to: "How can a sailboat, from a physics point of view, sail upwind?" We had already discussed that you cannot sail directly into the wind but have to zigzag to move upwind, but he was still puzzled by the idea that we could go against the wind at all. I thought about it for a while, but I couldn't really explain it without drawing diagrams (and we had no paper on the boat). Instead, I gave a half-hearted response using my hands to try and demonstrate directions of the forces involved, but eventually I sort of dismissed the question so we could enjoy the afternoon.

Well, two months later something reminded me of that question, and I recalled that I had done a poor job explaining the answer. I sat down with a pen and paper and drew some free-body diagrams, and I quickly understood the answer I should have given for how we can sail upwind. By this time my friend had moved out of town, so I transferred my drawing into a PowerPoint presentation, which I then emailed to the entire crew from that day.

The responses made me smile. The questioner responded with: "Steven Hoffenson, for the first time in my life, I love statics!". Another friend wrote back: "Oh my! This just made my day. Friggen hilarious AND informative. Thank you for the lesson!". I felt pretty good about that, and at that point I realized how fun teaching could be.

Good teachers, to me, make learning interesting and fun. The fact that my friends were asking questions and responding to my answers showed that they found learning about sailing to be interesting, and the fact that they were able to laugh at my ridiculous diagrams proved to me that it was fun. So, I thought again, I'm a pretty darn good teacher.

Most people wouldn't normally think of this type of experience when they think of teaching. Teaching has a classroom connotation, with one-way lectures and problem sets and examinations. But teaching doesn't have to be that way. My experiences as a teaching figure has taken me to classrooms in elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, college, and graduate school, and I've learned that teaching works best when I can find a way to make the material interesting and entertaining to the students. Students at different ages and levels obviously have different interests, and so it's important for good teachers to understand how to get through to their particular students in an interesting and entertaining way. Whenever I teach in a classroom, even if I've taught the material before, I make liberal use of questions to make sure that my students are following and interested, and each time I use previous experiences to make it better for the next class. Teaching is in fact an iterative process, not unlike design optimization!

Another important teaching lesson to take from my sailing experience is that sometimes teachers can't think of the right answers or the right way to explain things when they're "on the spot". No teacher is perfect. If I don't know the answer when I'm teaching, and nobody else in the room knows, I always make an effort to return with the answer somehow. Sometimes this is the next day in class, and sometimes it's two months later via email.
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