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Putting Physics First

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It is by definition a rare thing to win what some call the nation’s most prestigious collegiate teaching honor, Baylor University’s Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching. The award comes with a $250,000 prize. University of Missouri's Meera Chandrasekhar has all the qualifications one expects of a distinguished professor whose career teaching physics spans three decades. She earned a doctoral degree from a top university (Brown). She built a strong research program and published more than 100 papers to which other academic researchers refer frequently. Private-sector engineers use her findings to design semiconductors and superconductors. She has won Mizzou’s top teaching honors, as well as other national honors.

Physics professor Meera Chandrasekhar’s Physics First program is changing how and when Missouri high school students learn science. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

What struck me about her is that she has this calming effect,” says Mike Thompson who leads the Cherry selection committee. “There are some personality types that fear physics and math, and her calming personality says, ‘It’s OK, this will not hurt you.’ ” Thing is, this sort of career and charisma are pretty much required of nominees making it to the short list, Thompson says.

What put Chandrasekhar over the top? Thompson says it’s her Physics First program, whose Missouri-wide reach is changing when and how high schools teach sciences. Her approach — requiring a hands-on physics course in ninth grade, before biology and chemistry — is designed to give students a better chance of succeeding in college courses as well as careers that involve science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. Building a 21st-century economy requires these skill sets, and many STEM-related jobs pay well.

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Campus: UMC
Key words: Innovation, Math, MU Campus, Science, Teaching, UM System,
County: Boone

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