Physics Illinois professor Mats Selen, Professor of the Year

Mike Koon, College of Engineering

Associate Head for Undergraduate Programs and Professor Mats Selen
Associate Head for Undergraduate Programs and Professor Mats Selen

University of Illinois physics professor Mats Selen has been named 2016 U.S. Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). This prestigious national award is bestowed annually on one professor from each of four institutional categories; Selen is recognized as the Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor.

The award recognizes the highest level of excellence in undergraduate teaching and mentoring, a scholarly approach to teaching and learning, and significant contributions to undergraduate education at the home institution and community and to the teaching profession.

“This is well-deserved recognition for the dedication Mats has to our students and to ensuring they have transformational experiences here,” said Barbara J. Wilson, the interim chancellor of the Urbana campus. “And given the scale at which our College of Engineering operates, there are very few other institutions in the world where the work of a single professor can influence so many great students so directly.”

The award was presented to Selen during a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on November 19, 2015.

“I am humbled to have my work recognized in this way,” shares Selen, who serves the physics department as Associate Head for Undergraduate Programs. “Doing a good job of teaching science and of inspiring passion for science is so important at all levels of education. I think I value it so highly because I had excellent teachers. I had great parents—a dad who taught me to love tinkering and exploring new things and a mom who taught me to love books. I went to a college where I had great mentors and the opportunity to get involved with research. Most of all, being at the University of Illinois has enabled me to put all of these pieces together—it is an amazing place that rewards excellence in education as well as research, innovation, and outreach. It’s a place that brings out the best in people.”

Improving science education at Illinois and beyond

Selen, along with colleagues Tim Stelzer and Gary Gladding, have been at the forefront of a broad effort to improve how the highly enrolled introductory physics classes at Illinois are taught. Their efforts have been recognized with several honors, including the Excellence in Education Award of the American Physical Society.

Selen comments, “My colleagues and I who work in physics education research at Illinois apply the skills and methods of our scientific training to improve how we teach science—the result is a richer, deeper, and much more fun student experience. Being a part of making that happen is really its own reward, because the students are amazing. I want for them the kind of inspiration that I’ve been really lucky to get throughout my life.”

The enjoyment Selen takes from teaching and education research is deeply rooted in his love of science. He admits:

“What sets scientists apart a little bit is this great desire to just play. I don’t think I’ve ever quite grown up, but in science and in teaching, that has probably been of great benefit to me. I want to enable other people to have this joy of just playing and discovering. If all our students had the possibility of doing that, I think the world would change.”

Stelzer has worked closely with Selen for many years. He shares, “Mats Selen is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet. He has an easy going demeanor, combined with great enthusiasm for everything he does. I think that is why he is such an effective teacher. Students don’t see the brilliant Princeton-educated physicist; they see a guy who is truly inspired by the beauty in physics and excited to share what he loves with his students.

“Enthusiasm and dedication are qualities that also make him an ideal collaborator. Perpetually optimistic, Mats is a utility player equally happy coming up with an ingenious new algorithm for analyzing data, or staying up all night assembling lab kits for students to use the next day. Mats is a fantastic representative of the faculty at the University of Illinois in his commitment to providing our students with an exceptional educational experience.”

Selen and his colleagues developed SmartPhysics, an online platform of animated pre-lectures that both present content and give assessment to students prior to coming to class. The student-assessment results help the professor determine which concepts are the most challenging so that these can be the focus of classroom activities.

Selen and his colleagues also developed iclicker, a classroom response system that allows professors to interact with their students via a small wireless device that students bring to class. The system has been used by millions of students across North America.

“We spend quite a lot of class time in peer instruction: students are asked questions, which they discuss with their neighbors and then click their responses, which are displayed back to them in real time,” Selen adds. “Lots of research has shown that actively participating in class is much more effective for learning than just listening passively to the professor. It is also a much more fun way to teach.”

Most recently, Selen developed IOLab, a small, inexpensive wireless system of precision sensors: “We hope that by letting students do engaging hands-on lab activities anywhere at any time, while providing them with challenging assignments, they will learn to tinker and innovate on their own. We believe it will add a whole new dimension of learning to our introductory physics classes.”

Reaching out

Selen is passionate about sharing his love of science with everyone, not just the students in his own classes. In 1994, Selen and a small group of physics undergrads created the Physics Van, an outreach program in which University of Illinois students take fun science demonstrations to elementary schools to spark a love of science in young children. The program quickly grew and is now a beloved campus institution that has reached well over 100,000 elementary students and 10,000 teachers and parents since its humble beginnings. In the spring of 2014, the Physics Van celebrated its 20th anniversary with a reunion of former student volunteers, many of whom are still doing science outreach in their own communities.

Physics Van members demonstrate a liquid-nitrogen-powered dish soap explosion during Engineering Open House 2014.
Physics Van members demonstrate a liquid-nitrogen-powered dish soap explosion during Engineering Open House 2014.
“It’s easy to see how this is great for the little kids that see one of the shows,” Selen remarks, “but the thing that I didn’t anticipate was the impact that the program would have on the students here at the university—the Physics Van volunteers. They are just wonderful; they take challenging classes and study hard, many working part time to pay the bills, but they still take the time out to go to schools and share the excitement of science with primary school students. Their commitment to science and to teaching just amazes me—it’s stuff like this that gives me hope for the future.”

Katrina Litke, one of Selen’s former students and a former student leader of the Physics Van, will travel to the awards ceremony in D.C. to introduce Selen. Litke completed her undergraduate studies at Illinois in 2015 with a double major in physics and astronomy and is currently a graduate student at the University of Arizona.

Litke shares, “Mats is one of the best professors I have met. Working with him in the physics department has inspired me to seek educational outreach opportunities and to bring science to the community, just as he has for more than 20 years. I feel honored to have known him and to have been a part of the outreach group he created.”

In another outreach effort, Selen created a physics course specifically for students at the University of Illinois who are studying to be elementary school teachers. Physics 123 shows College of Education students how to use simple and inexpensive materials to explore real science with children. It gives them a framework for doing the same activities with the students they will one day have in their own classrooms.

“Teaching a student is always great,” observes Selen, “but teaching a teacher extends our impact exponentially.”

How he got here

Selen, a noted leader in particle physics and in science education, was born in Sweden and immigrated to Canada with his parents at the age of ten. His high-school years were spent on a sheep farm near Tweed Ontario, and when he entered college at the University of Guelph, his original plan was to become a veterinarian. His career path changed course shortly after he started at the university, when he took an introductory physics class. The professor teaching the course, Jack MacDonald, gave Selen a job doing research the following summer.

“When I stepped into his lab for the first time, my life was changed forever,” Selen remembers, “I thought, ‘This is the greatest job ever!’ I was surrounded by cool equipment and smart people—it was so new and exciting and different. I’m not sure I even thought about it as research. For me it was cool just being a small part of the scientific world, and the fact that somebody gave me a summer job to do this made it even better.”

Selen also credits Guelph professor Innes MacKenzie for being a very important role model and mentor: “Innes was in the lab tinkering all the time. He was an amazing designer of experiments and he had the most amazing ideas for applying physics to everyday problems. I wanted to be just like him.”

After receiving both a B.S. (1982) and a M.Sc. (1983) in physics from Guelph, Selen went on to Princeton to complete a PhD. His thesis advisor was Stewart Smith, who introduced Selen to the world of particle physics and to Brookhaven National Laboratory, where Selen helped to build the experiment that would be the basis of his thesis research. As a postdoc at Cornell University from 1989 to 1993, Selen worked on CLEO, a particle physics experiment designed to study high-energy collisions between electrons and positrons. He did research on the production and decay of heavy quarks and became an expert in designing and building electronics.

In 1993, Selen came to the University of Illinois, where he continued his particle physics research and also started teaching the large introductory physics classes that are taken by several thousand physics and engineering majors every semester.

“This was a really exciting opportunity for me because the physics department already had an outstanding history of developing and using technology in innovative ways to improve teaching,” Selen notes, “and the fact that we teach so many students means that we can have a really big, positive impact.”

Selen lives in Tuscola, IL, with his wife, Lyn, two cats, and three dogs.

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