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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 8, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 16
Sharing His Love of Science

Bruce Barnett, winner of MAHE's 2007 Outstanding Faculty Award, is described by Arts and Sciences Dean Adam Falk as both a 'pioneer' and an 'innovator.'
Photo by Will Kirk/HIPS

Maryland Association of Higher Ed honors JHU physicist Bruce Barnett

By Lisa de Nike

According to Bruce Barnett, the future of our democracy depends upon our citizenry's ability to understand science.

"Our form of government rests on the electorate being intelligent and well-informed," says Barnett, a professor in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences' Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy. "Many of the major issues of the day are based ultimately on science: the energy crisis, stem cell research, global warming, sending people to Mars, the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools. If people are ignorant of the science behind the issues, then Democracy can fail."

Barnett clearly takes teaching science seriously, which is why he was delighted to learn that the Maryland Association of Higher Education had chosen him to receive its 2007 Outstanding Faculty Award. The 63-year-old Guilford resident was selected based on his innovative approach to teaching introductory physics to Johns Hopkins undergraduates and for his pioneering work in introducing physics and astronomy to the general public, including to high school teachers.

"I am truly honored to have received this award," Barnett says. "Being at an institution such as Johns Hopkins where one can do innovative research as well as teach really talented students is a great pleasure. I was part of a collaboration that discovered the top quark a few years ago, which was very exciting. But this teaching award is a much more personal accomplishment, and even more satisfying. I just really enjoy my interactions with students."

During his three decades at Johns Hopkins, Barnett has taught physics to both nonscience and science majors, and enjoys both endeavors. He says that helping students learn to think on their own is one of the biggest challenges facing physics teachers today.

"Many students come into physics with a background of memorizing facts in other courses," he says. "You cannot memorize physics! There are a few basic laws that allow you to derive solutions to a vast number of different problems and situations. Getting the students to learn to think logically through a problem, rather than trying to assign the problem a solution that they memorized from another problem, is the hardest part. In many senses, we physicists have to teach students how to learn, because if they try to just memorize physics, they get into a lot of difficulties."

Adam Falk, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and also a physicist, called Barnett both a "pioneer" and an "innovator."

"Dr. Barnett was the first instructor in his department to use a student feedback system to enhance interactivity in his large lectures," said Falk, who nominated Barnett for the recognition. "Students respond in real time to multiple-choice questions posed by the instructor, and those responses are tabulated and displayed graphically. This keeps students engaged in the lecture, requires them to think in class and has some entertainment value, too."

Barnett also started and continues to coordinate the local QuarkNet outreach group that brings local high school teachers to Johns Hopkins every summer for a week or two of enrichment activities that include lab experiments, demonstrations and lectures by distinguished physics faculty. In addition, he was the driving force behind the creation of the university's annual Physics Fair, which brings more than 300 people to the Homewood campus each April to enjoy physics-related activities.

Such efforts have not gone unnoticed at Johns Hopkins, where in 2006 Barnett was selected by the Student Council to win the George E. Owen Teaching Award for his outstanding devotion to undergraduate education. He also has been the recipient of the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association Excellence in Teaching Award.

"Bruce is truly an asset both to Johns Hopkins and to the community in general," says Jonathan Bagger, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. "In addition to his work with undergraduate students, high school teachers and the general public, he serves as the head of the university's Graduate Board, which formally regulates and confers all graduate degrees, and is a member of the Homewood Campus Ethics Board. A dedicated and superb educator, Bruce richly deserves this honor."

The Maryland Association of Higher Education is a voluntary organization for post-secondary education professionals in Maryland and is committed to advancing higher education in the state. More than 25 educators were nominated this year for its Outstanding Faculty Award. Barnett will receive the honor at MAHE's conference on March 9 at the University of Maryland University College.


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