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Central Washington University

CWU Professor Recognized Nationally for Physics Teaching

The American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) has named Central Washington University professor Michael Jackson the recipient of the 2013 David Halliday and Robert Resnick Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Physics Teaching. The award recognizes extraordinary accomplishments in communicating the excitement of physics to students, through undergraduate research, community outreach, and innovative teaching.

“When I was informed of the award, I nearly fell out of my chair,” said Jackson, who also serves as chair of the CWU Physics Department. “While I greatly appreciate the recognition that comes with this award, it also reflects the quality of our physics department. Everyone here—faculty, staff, and students—plays a critical role in its success. So, in many ways, this award not only recognizes my accomplishments but also the accomplishments of the entire CWU physics program.” 

Professor Jackson talks more about his prestigious award (above).

Jackson was charged with revitalizing physics at CWU when he arrived in 2007 from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Under his direction, in just five years the department has more than tripled its enrollment and doubled the number of graduates, which is now twice the national average for undergraduate physics programs.

"Mike's enthusiasm for physics is contagious," said CWU President James L. Gaudino, adding that Jackson's students are doing research typically reserved for graduate students at other universities. "Mike's standards for physics teaching include high energy, personal attention, and hands-on experience. It's why Central is the best place in Washington to earn a bachelor's degree in physics."

When Jackson arrived at CWU, introductory physics courses were taught in a traditional format with lectures followed by separate labs that could accommodate just 16 students. Jackson quickly instituted a new approach, integrating lectures and labs using inquiry-based learning.

“We integrated the lecture and lab components for all of our introductory courses to help facilitate student learning,” Jackson said, “while implementing an instructional technique demonstrated through physics education research to effectively engage students in the classroom and improve student learning.”

Another indicator of success has been the accomplishments of CWU physics students. For example, last year, Troy Kilburn, a CWU student majoring in both physics and chemistry earned prestigious recognition as a Goldwater Scholar in Mathematics, Science and Engineering. Kilburn researched strategies for developing alternative-energy light sources using rare earth minerals.    

“What I appreciate most about our program is the diverse array of opportunities we offer students beyond the classroom,” Jackson added. “Undergraduate research, peer mentoring, participation in student organizations, and conducting outreach programs for the public—these experiences provide them with the opportunity to find what they are passionate about along with helping develop the skill set needed for them to succeed in whatever area their passion leads them.” 
His students regularly present their research at local and national research venues, including in peer-reviewed publication. 

“Research is an experience all undergraduates should participate in.” Jackson stated “Through our faculty-student collaboration, students can formulate a hypothesis, design an experiment, apply the disciplinary skills acquired in the classroom, be exposed to and learn new scholarly techniques, manage aspects of the project that include timelines, financial resources, and people with the project, culminating in the dissemination of their work. It is a great experience available to students from all disciplines.” 

Jackson's own research includes the use of far-infrared laser emissions in the high-resolution spectroscopic investigations of stable and unstable molecules. It is supported with federal grants.

He developed collaborations within and outside CWU that include a dual-degree articulation agreement with Washington State University. Students in this program complete three years of physics at CWU and then transfer to any engineering program to complete their engineering coursework. Students ultimately earn a bachelor of science in physics from CWU and a bachelor of science in engineering from that institution. Jackson is now working on a dual-degree program with the CWU Mathematics Department for students interested in teaching high school physics and mathematics.

Jackson is highly involved with CWU’s Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education and in outreach to K-12 students and the general public through a variety of programs, including Science is Central. It reaches more than 800 elementary and middle school students and their teachers annually with up to 200 participants involved in public shows. In total, Jackson, known as “the laser show guy,” has made public presentations to more than 5,000 people in central Washington.

Gaudino called Jackson a leader on campus, where he also directs the Academic Department Chairs Organization and is assisting with efforts to garner state support for a new university science facility, Science Phase II.

“Effective student learning has also been at the forefront in our planning for Science Phase II,” Jackson pointed out.

Jackson earned his bachelor of science in physics and mathematics at the State University of New York, Oswego and his PhD in physics at New Mexico State University.

Publisher John Wiley & Sons is the primary source of funding for the award, established in 1993, through its donation to the AAPT.

Photo: Professor Jackson in his laser lab on the CWU campus.