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Amoco Undergraduate Teaching Award
Timothy A. McKay

With its exploration of matter, energy, motion and all the unknowns of the universe, physics can be a daunting subject for beginning students. From the first day of class, Timothy A. McKay engages his students in active learning so that they feel grounded in the topic and enjoy the challenges physics poses. As one student says, “He made it clear that physics classes were not about ‘plug and chug’ problem solving, but rather about learning to think scientifically.”

In seven years on the Department of Physics faculty, McKay has earned a reputation as an innovative and generous professor, with a skill for expressing complicated concepts in accessible terms. Many of McKay’s students, including undergraduate research assistants, have gone on to graduate study at some of the top physics departments in the nation.

McKay introduced “peer instruction” in the department’s introductory lecture course, transforming what had been a one-way dialogue into an interactive learning environment. Peer instruction begins with a professor asking a question crafted to reveal students’ understanding of topics addressed in class. All students answer privately through an electronic response system, allowing the instructor to see all their answers at once. If they don’t all get it right, they debate the question with their classmates. This exchange forces students to struggle with the lesson, reinforcing and clarifying their understanding. A final poll provides feedback for the instructor, allowing additional focus on those topics that most trouble the students.

McKay also helped implement an online system, which allows students to complete homework on the Web and receive instant feedback. With this system students can rework their homework until they get it right, rather than simply having a grader tell them how to do it.

Bringing his passion for physics to an even wider audience, McKay helps organize the popular Saturday Morning Physics program, which presents physics lectures to the larger Ann Arbor community. Under his leadership, attendance has grown to more than 300.

Michael A. Savageau
Lawrence Sklar
Kensell D. Wise
Robert E. Lewis
Don B. Clewell
Andrew F. Nagy
Jeffrey R. Parsons
Julia Adams
Richard D. Woods
Fred C. Adams
Photios G. Ioannou

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