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Paul Thomas receives Regents Teaching
Excellence Award

RELEASED: Aug. 12, 2010

Paul Thomas
Dr. Paul Thomas

Dr. Paul Thomas, a physics and astronomy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire for the past 21 years, has been named a recipient of the UW System's 2010 Regents Teaching Excellence Award.

The award is the highest recognition given to members of the UW System’s faculty and academic staff for outstanding career achievements in teaching. Each year just two UW System faculty or academic staff members and one system academic department receive the $5,000 awards. Thomas will receive the award at the system's Aug. 20 board of regents meeting in Madison.

"I'm overwhelmed with this honor, especially considering the distinguished UW-Eau Claire faculty who have received this award in the past," Thomas said. "UW-Eau Claire faculty are the most dedicated teachers I've ever met in my life, and I draw inspiration from my colleagues daily."

In his teaching, Thomas said he has been devoted to helping students see the sciences not as an isolated area of study but as an integral part of the liberal arts, both influencing and being influenced by many other disciplines.

"When things are at their best, our students realize that what they've just discussed in an English or history class is deeply connected to a concept in chemistry or physics," he said. "Helping the students make these interdisciplinary connections is something at which UW-Eau Claire faculty excel."

Thomas said an important role model for him was his undergraduate thermodynamics professor, who made what could have been a dry discussion of the efficiency of steam engines into a much broader and more interesting exploration of the development of steam power and the history of the European empires in the 18th century.

"In that course I realized the power of putting scientific development in context with history and politics," Thomas said. "In all my courses I have tried to follow this example."

Throughout his career at UW-Eau Claire, Thomas has participated in the development of interdisciplinary courses and has taught those classes collaboratively with colleagues from other academic departments. Such classes and collaborating departments have included "Physics and Chemistry of Everyday Life" (chemistry), "Planetary Geology" (geology), "Science Fiction: Future Tense" (English) and "Computational Science Capstone" (mathematics).

The computational science course is one of a number of classes offered through the university's relatively new computational science minor. Thomas led the development of the minor, which gives science students in a variety of disciplines experience in computational, real-world problem solving. As director of the minor program, Thomas coordinated the development of four new courses in the departments of math and computer science, which provided the backbone of the program, and the listing of a wider set of elective courses in each of the collaborating departments of biology, chemistry, computer science, geology, mathematics, and physics and astronomy. He also collaborated in the development of a special topics course that partners computational science juniors and seniors with research collaborators in the participating departments.

"Paul is quite simply an excellent collaborator and teacher," wrote Dr. Marc Goulet, a professor of mathematics who worked with Thomas to develop the computational science program, in a letter recommending Thomas for the Regents Teaching Excellence Award. "His enthusiasm is infectious and his intellect prodigious and inviting."

Thomas also has brought science education to the general community through UW-Eau Claire's monthly "Ask a Scientist" seminar series, which he developed in 2008 and continues to organize. Through the program, UW-Eau Claire scientists make 30-minute presentations at a local coffee shop on scientific topics of interest to the community. Each presentation is followed by a 30-minute question-and-answer period. Typical attendance at the presentations ranges from 50 to 70 community members.

Thomas said some of his proudest experiences have been watching the growth of students he's worked with in research and collaborative coursework. One of those students, Steven Henke, is now in the final stages of a computational science doctoral program at Florida State University.

"Science is hard," wrote Henke, a 2007 UW-Eau Claire physics graduate, in a letter recommending Thomas for the award. "Effective science teaching requires both technical expertise and a unique blend of personality, experience and the ability to communicate. Paul Thomas possesses these qualities and demonstrates them daily, educating and inspiring discovery in students in ways only a classroom-tested veteran could."

Dr. J. Erik Hendrickson, chair and professor in UW-Eau Claire's physics and astronomy department, commented that Thomas' enthusiasm for teaching has been passed along to former students who now teach in science classrooms.

"Several of his former students are now university professors themselves," Hendrickson wrote in a recommendation letter, "and they give some of the credit for their passion for educating students to Paul's amazing teaching while they were undergraduates here at UW-Eau Claire."



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