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Physics Professor Honored with Academic Senate Distinguished Teaching Award

Graduate student also earns teaching award bringing department’s total to eight in six years

April 30, 2019 | By Cynthia Dillon

Alison CoilThe UC San Diego Committee on Senate Awards recently selected Professor of Physics Alison Coil for the 2018 – 2019 Distinguished Teaching Award for Academic Senate Members. The committee cited Coil’s impressive commitment to teaching that enlivens students and the campus culture.

As a recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award, Coil will receive $1,500 and an individualized plaque at the awards ceremony May 29, 2019, 2:30 p.m. at the Faculty Club. Her photo will be featured in the entrance to the Faculty Club during the coming year.

Barbara Walter, chair of the Committee on Senate Awards, said in a letter that Coil is to be “warmly congratulated” for achieving the special distinction. Walter further noted that all members of the committee were impressed and inspired by the commitment to teaching that Coil brings to the lives of the university’s students and the culture of campus. According to Walter, many colleagues and students wrote in support of Coil’s nomination.

The committee considered a large pool of talented candidates. Walter noted that the award speaks to Coil’s excellence in teaching and the many contributions she makes to her students and to the importance of pedagogy and mentorship at UC San Diego.

While Coil stood out on the faculty-side of teaching, physics graduate student Alex Meill was heralded by the Committee on Senate Awards as a recipient of the 2018 – 2019 Saltman Excellent Teaching Award for Graduate Students. He will receive a $500 prize, professional photographs, and a nicely framed diploma.

According to Professor Tom Murphy, the Department of Physics has won eight of these awards in six years. Before the streak, physics had a dry run of 10 years without an award.

“I can’t believe our unbroken record,” said Murphy. “All six years that Catherine McConney [physics student affairs manager] and I have put nominations together, we’ve been rewarded—and we are ecstatic with each new announcement.”

Alex Meill

Murphy explained that instructor quality, innovation and transformative impact on students are critical to success, but that it is also important to find a compelling narrative in the various metrics (e.g., student comments, supporting letters, etc.).

“It is pointless to throw up a bunch of ‘best professor ever’ comments from students, because all nominees are likely to have these superficial praises in their evaluations,” Murphy pointed out. “You have to look deeper to find more substantive patterns of what makes the instructor especially effective at getting students to stretch and learn.”

According to Murphy, in Coil’s case, the story focused on her bold experiment to turn the Physics 1C lecture into an all-out, active-learning experience. The first round was not well received, but rather than retreat to safer ground, Coil dug in with the help of teaching expertise on campus to systematically identify and remedy shortcomings. The result was a dramatic turnaround in student learning and appreciation.

As for Meill, he proposed to the department an overhaul of the Physics 2CL electronics laboratory course. His familiarity with the course as a long-time, lead teaching assistant and summer instructor for the course translated into a masterful job. His student evaluations beat all faculty instances over the past decade, but more impressively, the improvements he made to the course caused all future instructors to earn higher ratings as well.

Here’s a list of the past teaching award winners from the Department of Physics:

  • David Stone, 2014 (graduate student award)
  • Joe Salamon, 2015 (graduate student award)
  • Adam Burgasser, 2016 (faculty award) and Eric Michelsen, 2016 (non-senate award)
  • Oleg Shpyrko, 2017 (faculty award)
  • Emily Nardoni, 2018 (graduate student award)

UC San Diego was recently cited as one of the top 50 schools in the world for earning a degree in the physical sciences. The Department of Physics’ graduate program is among the top 20 in the nation.