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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Robinson receives USI Foundation Award for Outstanding Teaching by New Faculty

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If Dr. Shadow J. Q. Robinson had his way, more USI students would take physics to learn how the universe works. And those who do take physics would take more of it.

The assistant professor of physics is the recipient of the 2007-08 USI Foundation Outstanding Teaching by New Faculty Award. The award recognizes a faculty member who has been with the University less than six years. Since joining the faculty of the Pott College of Science and Engineering in 2003, Robinson has taught all levels of physics from introductory courses to independent topics.

His affinity for physics began in high school in Pike County, Kentucky, when he found it to be the most challenging subject he had encountered.

He continued with physics because of its widespread implications. “Your goal is to explain everything in the universe. If it happens inside this universe, physics is going to try to answer why that happened.”

In his research, Robinson studies the structure of nuclei primarily through the use of shell model codes on high-powered computers. He is committed to teaching physics because he can share the secrets of the universe with more people.

Robinson encourages students in the classroom to interact.

“When they talk to each other and develop their ideas, I may see where they have a misconception. It is often difficult to see that as quickly when they are putting down line after line of mathematics,” he said.

Robinson also wants physics students to develop skills in writing and speaking about scientific matters. In some courses, he includes assignments requiring students to write research papers and make class presentations. If he were responsible for hiring employees or approving requests for grants, he would trust the person who could explain his or her ideas well.

“People can get far if they are good at explaining their ideas,” he said. “If they can’t talk to others about their ideas, it doesn’t matter how good the ideas are.”

Robinson continually updates introductory courses with new lectures and problems as well as laboratory exercises. He uses technology, including JavaScript animations, to help students visualize abstract concepts.

Students say Robinson’s enthusiasm for physics is contagious.

During spring semester 2007, he offered a special topics course in Einstein’s theory of general relativity at the request of three students. “This is HARD stuff,” he says in capital letters in a course description on his Web site, “and it is no where near my specialty, but if you have the serious chutzpah to think you are up to it, I would love to offer it again.”

He believes that motivated students who are willing to work should be allowed to pursue whatever topics interest them.

One student who completed the course last spring was Kyle Besing, a mathematics major with a minor in physics.

“I couldn’t help but think that if he (Robinson) was excited about the material, then it must be worth learning,” Besing said.

Besing praised Robinson’s teaching style, personal interaction, and commitment to teaching as well as his accessibility. Robinson was never too busy to help class members understand a concept. The students met regularly on Monday and Wednesday evenings to study.

“During this semester, Dr. Robinson also was teaching a night class and would come by our study group after already having been on campus 12 hours and make sure we didn’t have any questions before he went home.” Besing said.

Often, the students posed questions that triggered involved responses. Besing said Robinson stayed with them until they understood the concept or problem and often presented them with supplemental notes the next morning.

Robinson said he didn’t recall staying longer than two-and-a-half hours at any of the group’s study meetings.

Robinson earned bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physics at the University of Kentucky and a doctorate in physics at Rutgers University.

The USI Foundation Outstanding Teaching by New Faculty Award includes a $1,000 cash stipend and a $1,000 professional development grant. The award was announced at the spring faculty and administrative staff meeting on January 7. Responsibilities as a new parent kept Robinson from receiving the award in person. He and his wife Felicia welcomed their first child, a son named Elijah Quinn Robinson, into the universe on January 4.

Many people ask Robinson about his unusual first name. He legally added “Shadow” to his birth name, Jason Quinn Robinson, at age 20 after using it as a nickname for several years. The moniker developed in a couple of ways. He has used it as a pen name in writing poetry. He also became known as the “shadow” for his style as a high school basketball player.

Physics and poetry are not Robinson’s only interests. He and his wife hold season tickets for concerts of the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra. He also is learning to play classical guitar, an experience that he believes has made him more effective as a teacher.

“It helps me to see how hard I have to work at playing guitar to make progress,” he said. “It has given me insight into having patience. I see my students working at physics and trying to get better. If you want to get better at something, you have to stick with it.”

Betty Vawter
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