BTN LiveBIG: Illinois professor shares passion for physics, education
Someone who’d just earned a “Professor of the Year” award from a national teaching organization would be justified in feeling a swelled sense of pride and accomplishment. But University of Illinois professor Mats Selen, who received just such an honor, definitely hasn’t let it go to his head.
From a field of 300-plus nominees, Selen was selected as Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He recently traveled to Washington, D.C., for the award ceremony.
“I was obviously very happy, but also felt like they got the wrong person,” he said of the honor. “I work with all these smart, talented people.”
However, Selen recognizes that the award has its benefits.
“It made me glad to be at a place where this kind of thing can happen,” he added. “Someone wrote up a very good nomination for me. I feel fortunate to work at a place with people like that. And it’s a nice recognition for the department, college and the university. I’m happy to accept the award on behalf of other people.”
Selen admired the talented faculty and administration at the Department of Physics before he ever came to Illinois. He’d interacted with several of them at academic conferences, and came away impressed.
“I thought, These guys are great, I want to be just like them,” he said. “I’ve always followed the people I admire and like. That’s really worked out well. When you have the option, go with good people.”
That positive impression, as well as the university’s groundbreaking research work, are why he joined Illinois as a professor in particle physics in 1993. However, he was worried about one thing: the flat topography. Selen lived on the East Coast, where he was never very far from mountains and oceans.
“Geographically, it’s very different from where I was,” he said. “The minute I got here, I fell in love with it. The whole area’s so friendly and nice, and the university’s so pleasant, I immediately forgot that there weren’t any hills.”
Early on in his tenure at Illinois, the department head approached Selen about heading up a science education and outreach program aimed at elementary school-aged kids. Shortly after that, the Physics Van “rolled off the lot.”
Based in part on similar ideas he’d seen from other institutions, Selen developed a program that centered on a mobile laboratory that traveled to schools and youth organizations to demonstrate simple, fun science experiments. The idea was to familiarize the kids with some basic physics concepts and, hopefully, plant a seed of interest in their minds.
The Physics Van turned out to be more successful than Selen could’ve predicted. Several years after launching, more than 100,000 kids have seen one of its live shows. But he said the Physics Van’s biggest impact might be in how it’s changed the perspective of the student volunteers from the university who manage the program.
“We have students from all departments,” he explained. “Students who’ve been in charge have been from architecture, art, the Vet school. It’s changed their lives as well.”
While his passion for the field of particle physics runs deep, it’s those students that keep Selen so engaged with and committed to his job year after year.
Because of his intense interest in students’ educational experiences and his love for the University of Illinois, Selen expects he’ll be there for a long time to come.
“I’ve got the best job in the world,” he said. “I’m going to keep doing it for as long as I can.”
By Brian Summerfield