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Two P-A faculty members receive 2018 MSU Teacher-Scholar Awards

Two members of the Physics-Astronomy faculty, Marcos D. “Danny” Caballero and Vashti Sawtelle, are among the six MSU faculty members awarded 2018 Teacher-Scholar Awards. These were officially presented at the annual MSU Awards Convocation on February 6th, 2018.

MSU Teacher-Scholar Awards, supported by the Office of University Development, are awarded to faculty who early in their careers have earned the respect of students and colleagues for their devotion to and skill in teaching, and whose instruction is linked to and informed by their research and creative activities.

[photo of Danny Caballero]

Danny Caballero is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy specializing in physics education research. His research concerns how students learn to practice science, that is, how they engage in and eventually develop expertise in the practices of modern scientists and engineers. Toward this understanding, he is passionate and practical in developing innovative learning environments and then studying their effect on student learning. He is particularly well known for his research on introducing computational tools and methods into physics courses, an expertise he has leveraged and expanded into several different classroom environments. The experimental methods include introducing new paradigms for introductory physics courses, transforming introductory physics laboratories and implementing new learning environments in junior and senior level courses.

Caballero is the founder of the Physics Education Research Laboratory (PERL) at MSU, which has grown rapidly to include three other faculty, numerous postdoctoral fellows and graduate and undergraduate students. Through a prolific output of high profile research publications, PERL has helped establish MSU as a national and international center of excellence in physics education research, so much so that faculty throughout the world are interested in applying his teaching methods. The University of Oslo has appointed Caballero as an affiliated professor to assist them in quantifying the effects of transformation of their curricula to include computational tools and methods.

Caballero's focus on excellent teaching extends beyond research. Both his undergraduate and graduate students are quick to praise his classroom methods as instrumental to their mastering physics concepts. In a non-majors physics class, for example, Caballero had students solve complex problems by applying physics concepts in small groups. In another class, he helped students grasp physics concepts by emphasizing conceptual understanding rather than rote calculations, which had the added bonus of student appreciation for the subject.

The impact of Caballero's work on physics courses at MSU has been transformative throughout the department, with the introduction of evidence-based practices in many courses, the development of new graduate and undergraduate teaching assistant training programs and the mentoring of many new faculty in evidence-based teaching practices.

For his outstanding research, broad mentoring and leadership roles, transformative impact on teaching in the physics and astronomy department and, most importantly, achieving very high learning gains and appreciation from diverse student populations, M. Danny Caballero is truly deserving of the Michigan State University Teacher-Scholar Award.

[photo of Vashti Sawtelle]

Vashti Sawtelle is an Assistant Professor jointly appointed in Lyman Briggs College and the Department of Physics & Astronomy, specializing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education research. Her particular interest is in supporting diverse groups of students and their learning environments through an improved understanding of interdisciplinary learning, focused on the roles active learning, modeling and interdisciplinary classrooms (e.g., physics for biologists) play in creating supportive learning environments.

Sawtelle led Lyman Briggs College’s physics group in a complete curricular transformation to Studio Physics, an integrated and innovative laboratory/lecture approach that supports students in building a strong conceptual and experimental basis for understanding physics concepts. One of the components of this approach ties the course content explicitly to biology and chemistry concepts to enhance its relevance to LBC students' interests. She further redesigned LBCs' physics curriculum to encourage reasoning and conceptual analysis, which involved a complete renovation and remodeling of the teaching space to promote active learning and investigations with modern measurement and data acquisition technologies.

In the classroom, Sawtelle clearly states the course's objectives, both large and small, and then aligns these goals with backwards-designed, problem-solving activities, laboratory experiments and in-class and homework assignments. During her classes, she walks throughout the studio room, interacting with student groups, probing their thoughts about the problems or experiments with which they are grappling, and then leads them to finding flaws in their understanding (when necessary) by posing challenging questions on the topic and their observations, instead of simply dispensing answers. Her physics teaching and course design excellence was recognized in 2016-2017 with a MSU Gateway STEM Fellowship.

Sawtelle has published numerous articles and conference proceedings papers and has co-authored a chapter on bridging knowledge analysis and interaction analysis in the book “Knowledge and Interaction: A Synthetic Agenda for the Learning Sciences.” Her seminal proceedings paper from the 2016 Physics Education Research Conference systematically investigates the student mindset in physics, which is strongly linked to academic performance. Sawtelle has also edited a special issue on physics education research for the journal Physical Review.

Sawtelle has demonstrated excellence in both teaching and research, establishing a strong footprint of active service among her wider discipline. For her experimental, innovative and ambitious pedagogical work in physics that informs her teaching, and teaching that informs her research, Vashti Sawtelle is a most deserving recipient of the Michigan State University Teacher-Scholar Award.