University of Rochester

Rochester Physicist Named New York State Professor of the Year

November 13, 2003

Steven L. Manly, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, has been named New York State Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Nearly 400 of the best college professors from across the country competed for the title in their home states. The 43 winners will be honored today at a luncheon at the National Press Club, with a reception in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill later this evening.

“Steve has made an enormous impact on the teaching mission of the College in a very short time,” says Thomas LeBlanc, Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Dean of the Faculty at the College. “From his teaching of introductory physics to pre-med and life sciences students, to his introduction of peer-led workshops into the physics curriculum, Steve has been continuously engaged in improving undergraduate teaching using innovative methods. It is fitting that his efforts be recognized with this appointment.”

Manly received his bachelor’s in chemistry, mathematics, and physics from Pfeiffer College, N.C., in 1982, and received his doctorate in experimental high-energy physics from Columbia University in 1989. He then joined the Yale faculty as an assistant professor before arriving to teach and carry out high-energy particle research at the University of Rochester in 1998. Much of his research is carried out at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in Brookhaven, N.Y., where he recently revealed that a well-known force within the atom wasn’t behaving as expected.

When Manly joined the University, he taught Introductory Physics, which historically received low marks on student evaluations. He realized this was because the majority of his students were pre-med, biology, and engineering students who were taking the course as a requirement, and they had difficulty with the way physics is traditionally taught. The conventional view was that any student having difficulty in such a course would have difficulty succeeding as a professional physicist—but since these students were not looking to become physicists, Manly decided that the “sink or swim” mentality was counterproductive.

As part of his overhaul of the 150-plus size-class, Manly created workshops where students work through problems as a group. Each group has certain leaders trained to make the students comfortable enough to ask questions and confront topics they don’t understand. Simple props, such as yo-yos or basketballs, provide a way to reinforce concepts in a real-world way that lectures and abstract problems fail to do. The approach has worked so well that student evaluations became the highest ever for an introductory physics course, with 80 percent crediting the workshops as a major strength. Manly has taken the workshop idea a step farther, creating the Informal Task Force on Workshops to introduce workshops to other departments in the hopes they’ll excite students in those disciplines as well.

“His ability to place himself in the shoes of his students and to empathize with what it is to (again) be an undergraduate is outstanding,” says Nick Bigelow, Lee Dubridge Professor of Physics and Director of Undergraduate Studies.

“I have two goals in my teaching,” says Manly. “One it to teach students some physics and increase their awareness of the world around them. The other, perhaps more important goal, is to teach them to think. If a student leaves my course with an enhanced ability to face an unknown problem confidently and think their way through it, I consider that a major victory. Problem-solving skills go way beyond physics. It just turns out that elementary physics is the perfect place to teach people how.”

In April 2002, Manly’s initiatives in teaching were recognized by the University when he was named Mercer Brugler Distinguished Teaching Professor.

The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education established the program in 1981 with the Carnegie Foundation becoming a sponsor a year later. The Carnegie Foundation was founded in 1905 by Andrew Carnegie “to do all things necessary to encourage, uphold and dignify the profession of teaching.”