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Indian American selected for $250,000 Cherry Teaching Award

December 27, 2013 19:24 IST

One of the first things Meera Chandrasekhar noticed at BrownUniversity, where she was enrolled in the doctorate program in physics, was that there were just three women and some two dozen men.

“Even in India, where not many women go into science, I would have found more women in a similar program,” says Chandrasekhar, a professor of physics at the University of Missouri.

She was recently selected as one of three finalists for BaylorUniversity’s 2014 Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching. It comes with a reward of $250,000.

As a finalist, she will receive a $15,000 prize, and the MU physics department will receive $10,000.

Chandrasekhar is known for her work during the past 20 years, along with several other organizations, in getting girls in schools study physics and train physics teachers to boost physics teaching in schools.

“I guess to some extent this came from having three daughters,” Chandrasekhar says, chuckling. “I have believed that it is important for everyone to take a course in science and since physics is my passion, I began thinking of taking it to hundreds of students at a young age.”

Engineering students often have to study physics in college. “And they find it overwhelming,” she says. “Had they taken strong physics classes in school, they would have found it not so daunting.”

Chandrasekhar, who has lived in Missouri for 35 years with her physicist husband, has a BSc degree from MGMCollege, Udupi, an MSc from the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, and a PhD from Brown. After a post-doctoral fellowship at Max-Planck-Institut in Stuttgart, she came to the University of Missouri.

Chandrasekhar presented a series of lectures at Baylor during fall 2013 as well as a Cherry Award lecture on the MU campus. The eventual winner of the award will receive $250,000, an additional $25,000 for his or her home department, and s/he will teach in residence at Baylor during fall 2014 or spring 2015.

The Cherry Award was created by Robert Foster Cherry, a Baylor alumnus, and it was designed to honor great teachers and to stimulate discussion in the academy about the value of teaching and to encourage departments and institutions to value their own great teachers.

"I am familiar with her contributions," professor Emeritus Henry White wrote, nominating Professor Chandrasekhar, ‘nominated as an outstanding and inspirational teacher in the department, in her outreach activities, and as a role model to physics teachers and students throughout Missouri.’

Michael J O’Brien, dean of the College of Arts and Science, said Professor Chandrasekhar "embodies the best qualities in a teacher."

Chandrasekhar says that as a graduate student, she really enjoyed teaching and participating in discussions with other students, which motivated her to be a college professor.

As the years passed, teaching started to take on a broader perspective, and her interests evolved from teaching college students to developing programs for K-12 students and training for their teachers.

“I began to notice that my students were coming to college with strong misconceptions about physics,” says Chandrasekhar. “They seemed to really hate it, and I couldn’t figure out why. I realised the problem was the way it was being taught.”

She explains that physics was being taught as an opaque subject, but it should not be. She also thought that students should be exposed to physics earlier in their education.

“Physics is fun and interesting,” she says. “It might be difficult, but it has connections to everyday life, so that should make it more attractive to study.”

The professional development program she started evolved into the Physics First program in 2006, for which she received funding from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the National Science Foundation.

The program has trained over 140 Missouri teachers to teach a year-long physics course in ninth grade.

“When teachers go back to teach their classes, they are teaching in a more conceptual way,” says Chandrasekhar. “The students do stuff, figure out what is going on, and learn physics in the process. This isn’t book learning. It is learning by doing and discussion. They are discovering physics the way a scientist learns new things.”

Arthur J Pais