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News from the Hilltop

Nov. 19, 2009

Birmingham-Southern physics professor Duane Pontius named Alabama Professor of the Year

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—Dr. Duane H. Pontius Jr., the T. Morris Hackney Professor of Physics at Birmingham-Southern College, has been named the 2009 Alabama Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). He will receive the award today at a luncheon in Washington, D.C.

Pontius, a 1981 graduate of Birmingham-Southern, joined the faculty at the college in 1999 following a career in theoretical space physics research. At BSC, he has concentrated on overhauling the pedagogy for introductory physics in line with recent advances from educational research.

Professor Duane Pontius

Pontius was selected for this award from faculty members nominated by colleges and universities throughout the country. This year, there are 38 state winners selected by Carnegie and CASE.

“Dr. Pontius' commitment to effective teaching and to meaningful engagement with students extends beyond those in his classes, and he participates in a broader discussion of undergraduate physics pedagogy” stated Dr. Wayne Shew, Ada Rittenhouse Snavely Professor of Biology and associate provost at BSC, who earlier this year nominated Pontius for the award.

Pontius initiated peer instruction at BSC, based on his version of a model developed at Harvard. His method, which requires students to engage in the material during class, is completely interactive and includes an electronic response system known for its clicker devices used by students to respond. He also utilizes lecture demonstration in his classes, which he maintains is more rewarding and fun for him and his students. According to Pontius, throughout the course of a class period, students' responses increase from about 5 percent to about 95 percent correct based on these interactive exercises.

His ongoing research has made fundamental contributions to the understanding of Jupiter's magnetosphere and the interactions with its moons. Recently, he developed a theoretical model that played a role in the discovery of geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus. Outside the classroom and the laboratory, Pontius also leads the Interim at Sea course during the college's annual January Interim term. During this three week intense, experience-based learning project aboard a classic two-masted schooner sailing the Caribbean, he leads 20 BSC students who work as crew members under conditions that are at best primitive. According to Pontius, the purpose is to learn how to sail, but the experience is like no other.

“It brings out things in the students that they didn't know they had in them,” said Pontius.

After receiving his bachelor's degree at BSC, Pontius earned a Ph.D. in space physics and astronomy from Rice University. In 2004, BSC students awarded him the Omicron Delta Kappa Excellence in Teaching Award. He is currently president-elect of the Alabama Section of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, founded in 1905 by Andrew Carnegie, is the only advanced-study center for teachers in the world and the third-oldest foundation in the nation.

CASE is the largest international association of education institutions, serving nearly 3,400 universities, colleges, schools, and related organizations in 59 countries.

View a video interview with Doctor Pontius

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