After 30 years of teaching, Scot Gould is still reinventing

Professor Scot Gould poses on campus with his hair reaching past his shoulders from his pandemic experiment.
October 26, 2021

Scot Gould remembers the first time he saw the Butler Plaza fountain.

Fresh out of grad school, the young assistant professor of physics stared at the plaques honoring faculty who had completed 30 years at Claremont McKenna College.

The idea of staying in the same place, doing the same thing year after year, induced mild panic.

In 2021, Gould celebrates his 30th year with the W.M. Keck Science Department. Oddly, he’s looking forward to getting his own fountain plaque.

What changed?

“I didn’t realize that as a professor I could reinvent myself with new opportunities. The joy of actually being here is that I’ve had many, many careers,” said the many-faceted physicist whose papers have been cited more than 6,000 times. “I became a better teacher. I became a better contributor to society. And I think—I hope—the students have benefited from it.”

Raised in Middlebury, Vermont, Gould attended the eponymous college of his hometown, where his father taught physics. Gould went on to earn his PhD in physics too, in 1991, at UC Santa Barbara, specializing in atomic force microscopy; he joined the Keck Science Department as an assistant professor that same year.

Though he’d tasted the excitement of participating in world-class research—three of his UCSB professors went on to win Nobel Prizes—Gould had fallen in love with the liberal arts college as an undergraduate.

Everything about the Keck Science Department appealed to him: the small classes; the close mentoring relationships with bright, inquisitive undergraduates; the effortless cross-pollination across disciplines.

He started out teaching not just introductory physics, but materials science, electronics, quantum mechanics along with specialty courses like the physics of sports and physics for educators.

Gould established a scanning probe microscopy lab, where he initially focused on direct imaging of synthetic polymers, such as nylon and liquid crystal. He later shifted to natural polymers to better integrate physics principles with biology and chemistry. Intrigued by spider silk, he started collaborating with Keck Science colleagues to untangle how arachnids build their webs for optimized prey capture. A sabbatical took Gould to New Zealand’s University of Otago, where he researched the material and structural properties of silk from three native spider species.

When a CMC economist suggested collaborating on research into systemic risk in the banking industry, Gould threw himself into financial modeling. A paper they published in 1997 anticipated the “too-big-to-fail” hazard that would capsize the world economy a decade later.

Asked what physics has to do with banking, he explains: “To me a bank is like a cell, or a particle, or an atom. And money is energy. Through modeling and computer programming, we can play the same games with banking that we play with atoms and energy.”

His latest “reinvention” as a scholar has been in the area of science pedagogy. Gould is at the vanguard of a movement to integrate the teaching of physics, chemistry, and biology at the college level.

“We need to change our entire philosophy about what basic science content should be and how it should be approached,” he said.

Gould has spoken at dozens of conferences on the topic, drawing examples from Keck Science Department’s intensive year-long introductory course, the Accelerated Integrated Sciences Sequence (AISS), which he spearheaded with a $650,000 NSF grant in 2007.

“We were far ahead of what other colleges and universities were doing,” said Gould, of the AISS program, which has since ended. He continues to advocate for integrated sciences pedagogy at the college level and at meetings of high school teachers and administrators.

The Keck Science Department has grown nearly five-fold since Gould joined the faculty, where he has been the “convener” for the physics group for many years and is now its longest-serving professor.

“Sciences completely took off when I got hired,” he said. Even the visionary Jack Stark '57 GP'11, then-president of CMC, had not anticipated how fast demand would increase. Five years after the Keck Science Center opened, the faculty had already outgrown it, Gould recalls. He notes with satisfaction that CMC’s future Integrated Sciences Center will address long-delayed needs.  

Gould’s advisees and mentees tend to be cross-disciplinary physics students pursuing dual degrees or double majors in seemingly unrelated fields like philosophy or economics.

That includes his own daughter, Casey Gould S’16, who majored in physics and minored in computer science. She is now a technical product manager at the Seattle corporate headquarters of Starbucks.

Having his daughter as a student spurred Gould to reinvent some of his teaching methods.

“I had to devise a double-blind grading system to keep things absolutely fair,” he reflects. “My classes work better because of Casey. She was my harshest critic. Faculty offspring are the most willing to speak up, because they’re not as afraid of the professors,” he explains, smiling with approval.

When he isn’t working, Gould pursues his passion for cycling. He tries to ride five times a week, including to campus from the Upland home he shares with partner Karen Casey, a former study abroad administrator with Pitzer College. They recently returned from a cycling tour of central Colorado with friend, collaborator and longtime Keck Science physics colleague Stephen Naftilan, now an emeritus professor.

“When I was in my early 40s, I used to ride double-centuries,” Gould said, using biker-jargon for a 200-mile day. “I’m not in that shape anymore,” the 59-year-old cyclist laments.

His most ambitious ride, he recalls, went from Santa Clarita, through the Los Padres National Forest, along the Grapevine portion of I-5, and back through the Los Angeles National Forest. One day’s crests and troughs added up to 15,000 feet of climbing.

Before the pandemic, Gould enjoyed organizing weeklong bike tours for small groups of friends, with itineraries covering anywhere from 30 to 80 miles a day.

His favorite cycling destination is Italy, particularly Sardinia. He’s learned enough Italian to pedal town to town in search of fine dining.

That’s the best part of bike touring, he explains: “You can eat anything you want, because you’ve actually burned 5,000 or 6,000 calories on a hard day.”

Another passion is baseball. Gould is a Tampa Bay Rays fan for intellectual reasons: “They’re a smart team. They hire physics PhDs to help solve their problems.” He’s also a music lover trained in classical violin with an eclectic taste that runs from blues to Gregorian chant to the college jam band, moe.  

In the spirit of personal self-reinvention, Gould used pandemic hair-salon restrictions as an opportunity to grow a ponytail. “I wanted to see how far it could go. It’s done all right, actually,” he said, sizing up the results during a Zoom call.

On sabbatical this semester, Gould is developing a pedagogical game-changer: a platform that trains introductory physics student to use advance computational environments like Maple, Matlab, and Mathematica. He hopes to consolidate in one website video tutorials, worksheets and practice problem sets covering “all the math they’re going to need for physics.”

Access to these hybrid teaching resources, Gould said, will free Keck Science faculty to prioritize creative, hands-on activities and individual interaction with students during in-class meetings.

“My goal is to build up a large enough library to be a turnkey operation for all my colleagues who come after me,” Gould said.

Using surveys and other feedback from students, he’s tweaking content for optimal results. It’s painstaking, repetitious work.

“Sometimes I shoot too high; sometimes I shoot too low. There is no textbook. I’m doing this all from scratch. It’s a lot of effort, but it’s what excites me,” said this lifelong Claremont professor who never tires of reinvention.

Diane Krieger

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