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Vashti Sawtelle receives Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year award

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headshot of Vashti Sawtelle
Vashti Sawtelle. Courtesy photo

Vashti Sawtelle, associate professor in the MSU Department of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Natural Science (NatSci) and Lyman Briggs College, was one of three professors selected for the 2022 Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year Award from the Michigan Association of State Universities.

The Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year Award recognizes the outstanding contributions and dedication exhibited by the faculty from Michigan’s 15 public universities to the education of undergraduate students. Each university was invited to nominate a faculty member who has had a significant impact on undergraduate student learning through various activities, particularly classroom instruction, applied research, experiential learning, innovation and mentoring.

“Dr. Sawtelle is an outstanding scholar and leader in developing evidence-based experiential learning environments, and the assessment of their impact on learning gains,” said Phil Duxbury, NatSci dean. “She has developed novel curricula for introductory courses that integrate traditional lecture materials and laboratory experiences into integrated experiential learning environments that are designed to help students from all backgrounds succeed. Dr. Sawtelle has also established leadership in understanding and improving the success of transfer students, particularly students who transition from community college to MSU. She is truly deserving of this recognition.”

Sawtelle’s research and teaching combine to focus on improving the teaching of physics to students of all identities. She earned the opportunity early in her career to redesign introductory calculus-based physics classes and has focused on improving teaching for non-majors. She actively incorporates inclusive teaching strategies and is increasingly centering equity into her physics classes. In 2017, she co-wrote a lesson plan for teaching about racial equity in physics that was subsequently published in The Physics Teacher. Her research of physics undergraduate education provides new understanding of inclusivity to make sure all students can succeed in the sciences.

Additionally, Sawtelle created the very successful Briggs Life Science Studio (BLiSS) Physics course, an experimentally driven studio class that engages students in learning by doing. It allows students to gain understanding of core physics concepts by hands-on exploration followed by group discussion. Her successes in LBC have shaped the transformation of the Department of Physics’ introductory physics curriculum as they adopt a similar studio model.

Sawtelle’s efforts to improve the outcomes for students goes well beyond MSU and the physics undergraduate education community. Her research on the experiences of junior college transfer students to four-year institutions is helping break down barriers for these students, providing another example of her positive impact. Over the past five years, she has also conducted workshops on race, ethnicity, and equity in physics at the American Association of Physics Teachers national meetings. These workshops facilitate her sharing insights and resources that she has developed with physics instructors in both high school and college settings.

“Dr. Sawtelle has been exceptional in both her teaching as well as broader efforts to make science in general and physics specifically more inclusive," said Steve Zepf, Department of Physics and Astronomy chair. "Her work with transfer students is one example of this. Transfer students make up a significant fraction of students at MSU, but the experiences of these students have not always been well studied. Dr. Sawtelle has put in the time and effort to understand how to help make these students’ experience at Michigan State successful.”

Sawtelle has been an MSU faculty member since 2014. She’s co-director of the Physics Education Research Lab, or PERL, in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and is known by students and peers for her inclusive teaching practices and student engagement.

She received her B.A. in physics from Grinnell College and her Ph.D. in physics from Florida International University. Sawtelle has received a number of honors during her MSU tenure including MSU’s Spirit of Mobility Award in 2019 for her research into inclusive education, the MSU Teacher-Scholar Award in 2018, and MSU’s STEM Gateway Fellows Award in 2016-17.

In addition to Sawtelle, the other 2022 Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year award recipients are Sandra M. Gonzales of Wayne State University, Carl Lee of Central Michigan University. For more information on all 2022 award recipients, visit https://bit.ly/3KLwWaI


Banner image: The College of Natural Science (NatSci) at Michigan State University is home to 27 departments and programs in the biological, physical, and mathematical sciences. The college averages $57M in research expenditures annually, while providing world-class educational opportunities to more than 5,500 undergraduate majors and 1,200 graduate and postdoc students. There are 800+ faculty and academic staff associated with NatSci, and more than 63,000 living alumni worldwide. Credit: Harley J. Seeley