CLEMSON -- A Clemson University physics professor known nationally for demonstrating scientific laws with toys is the first recipient of the American Association of Physics Teachers' Excellence in Undergraduate Physics Education Award.
"It's an overwhelming honor," said Clemson's Ray Turner. "When I think of all the physics teachers that I know and consider to be very good, it just seems incredible to me that I was selected."
Turner is the first person to win the newly created award from the nation's foremost physics teachers' association. The Excellence in Undergraduate Physics Education Award recognizes significant contributions in physics education at the national level by honoring faculty who exemplify the scholarship of a teaching physicist. Turner received the award last week at the association's summer meeting.
Turner is the recognized expert on the use of toys in the teaching of physics, according to Robert Resnick, a noted physicist and author of the most widely used textbook in introductory physics.
"Most folks won't go near a physics class. But I want to show everyone that physics can be fun," said Turner, who thinks nothing of using miniature Muppet cars to demonstrate Newtonian law or ball-spinning circus seals to illustrate magnetic attraction. He first hit on the idea of using toys in the classroom when he was shopping for toys for his own children. Now a grandfather, he has more than 400 demonstration toys that he has taken to classes and workshops throughout the United States and other countries over the past 20 years.
"Students of all ages enjoy the toys," said Turner. "They're fun to see, they're non-threatening. It's not always easy to understand physics, but often you can understand the principle through toys."
Turner's tactics have even persuaded some students, like liberal-arts-loving junior Jonathan H. Hayes, to adopt physics as a future career. "Dr. Turner is just a great teacher. I'm really enjoying physics with him," said the Summerville student. "He explains everything very thoroughly and can make even difficult topics easy to understand."
Turner typically uses the toys as end-of-topic demonstrations to drive home his points. He has also taught his interactive teaching methods to thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of students from kindergartners through college in a series of nationwide workshops.
"Professors like Ray Turner make students see physics in a new way," said Peter McNulty, chair of Clemson's physics and astronomy department. "He's an extraordinary teacher, and we're all very proud of him."
"To have one of your professors chosen to be the recipient of a national award -- especially to be the first recipient of what will be an annual award -- is a great honor not only for Dr. Turner but for this entire university," said Thomas M. Keinath, dean of Clemson's engineering and science college.
Turner, an Alumni Distinguished Professor, is the recipient of six major teaching awards, including the 1992 South Carolina Governor's Professor of the Year Award for exceptional teaching and this year's D.W. Bradbury Award for his dedication to the academic honors community.
Since 1990, Turner has taught more than 150 honors students in the three-course introductory sequence in physics and has served as chief advisor to all juniors and seniors participating in Clemson's departmental honors program in physics. He was the chief coordinator for the development of a new, thesis-based program for honors students in physics, which will be implemented this year.
Turner has taught at Clemson since 1968. He received his doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh and his bachelor's degree from Carnegie Institute of Technology. He organized and is director of the Upstate Alliance of Physics Teachers. He is active in the American Association of Physics Teachers and served as president of the association's Southern Atlantic Coast Section from 1996-97. He now serves as chair of the association's Committee on Science Education for the Public.