Physics professor and Associate Head for Undergraduate Programs Mats Selen was named a 2015 Professor of the Year.
Last semester, UIUC Physics Professor Mats Selen was named a 2015 Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year. He was chosen as one of four recipients out of 300+ faculty nominees from across the nation. You may know him from Phys 211 as the guy with the Hawaiian shirts who brought his dog to class for everyone to meet. Here’s a brief look at the life of one of our many great professors.
As a high school student, Mats loved math and chemistry. “I always liked the classes where I had a really great teacher,” Mats said. “I had a great calculus teacher, chemistry teacher, biology teacher. They really inspired me to do something with science.” Physics was actually his least favorite class at the time.
At the start of his freshman year at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, Mats thought he wanted to be a veterinarian, but the dream was short-lived. “I realized I couldn’t do [vet med] very well,” he said. “And then at the same time I had this great physics teacher. He cared about his class and he did a great job.” That intro class was the start that eventually led him to a career teaching and researching physics. “It took me a while to realize I even had the option [of teaching],” Mats said. “But I think the first time I sat in that lecture and saw the way the teacher did it, I started to become interested.”
Mats spent nearly twenty years doing extensive research in particle physics. He worked on an experiment at Cornell University called CLEO, which involved colliding positrons and electrons to create heavy quarks and then studying how those quarks decayed. About five years ago he switched to physics education research with the focus of improving the physics classes here at UIUC.
“We’re very interested in understanding how and when technology can be used to improve the experience of students in our large introductory classes,” Mats said of his research group, a twelve-person group within the physics department that includes himself and professors Tim Stelzer and Jose Mestre as well as a few grad students and several undergrads. “I love my work, so it almost seems like it’s a hobby,” Mats said. “I feel very lucky that I have a job that I like so much.”
This semester, the group has three Phys 211 lab sections doing experimental prelabs and labs that are very different from the current setup. Mats has often taught Phys 211 as well as other intro physics classes and more advanced ones, but he is not teaching this semester in order to focus on the lab development research. “We’re trying to improve our intro classes because there we can really have a huge impact,” Mats said. “We have thousands of students every semester in these classes and if we can make them a little bit better each semester, a lot of people benefit.”
Although he isn’t teaching it this semester, one of the reasons Mats enjoys Phys 211 is the same as why many of us enjoyed taking it: the demos. He likes the demos because they engage students. “There’s nothing better than happy students when you’re teaching,” Mats said. “The best experience you could have in a classroom is when people are excited and asking questions.”
However, not every demo goes as planned. There used to be a fire extinguisher demo where the extinguisher had a nozzle attached to its hose and a student volunteer would hold on to the nozzle when the teacher squeezed the trigger. “The idea was to show everyone the recoil,” Mats said. Three or four years after he started teaching here, the volunteer Mats had for that demo wasn’t quite ready when he pulled the trigger. “The hose flew up and hit him in the mouth. He was bleeding and he cracked a tooth,” Mats said. “I felt really bad. We actually had to take him to the doctor.”
However, at the next lecture two days later, the student was back. “I was a little nervous,” Mats said. “But then he walked in wearing a hockey helmet with a big facemask. He just did it as a joke.” The two became friends and the student later nominated Mats to be an Honorary Knight of St. Patrick.
“It was a weird bad thing that turned into a really nice good thing,” Mats said of the demo experience. “It turned into a friendship and I’m sure he is off doing great engineering things now.”
Of everything he’s accomplished, Mats is most proud of the impact he can have on his students. “The great thing about teaching is students,” he said. “In each class you get to know a handful of people and then you get great joy when they go and do great things, like the guy I smacked in the face.” He’s also very proud of starting the Physics Van, which drives to elementary schools to do science shows for kids. “Probably 120,000 little kids in Illinois have seen the Physics Van now,” Mats said. “But I think the biggest impact it’s had has been on the people who volunteer to run it.”
For those who have hopes of becoming a teacher, Mats has some simple advice. “You’ve got to love students,” he said. “Of course, you need to have a good course put together and it definitely helps to use the best teaching techniques, but I think that really caring about the students is the key ingredient.”