Sorensen Named 2007-08 Coffman Chair for University Distinguished Teaching Scholars


Kansas State University's Christopher Sorensen will have engineering physics students jumping off tables if it will help them learn about zero gravity.

Sorensen, university distinguished professor of physics, uses a zero-gravity demonstration students can do themselves. They stand on a table holding paper cups poked with small holes and filled with water. The students jump off the table and watch as, for a split second of zero gravity, the water quits flowing from the hole.

"Just imagine a room full of 40 kids, 40 paper cups and people jumping off tables," Sorensen said.

Duane Nellis, K-State provost, named Sorensen as the 2007-2008 Coffman Chair for University Distinguished Teaching Scholars. The position was created in 1995 to underscore K-State's commitment to excellence in undergraduate teaching and learning. A faculty member acknowledged as a leading teaching scholar is appointed to the chair for one academic year. All who are selected to hold the chair retain the title of University Distinguished Teaching Scholar throughout their careers. During the year in residence, the scholar's time and resources will be spent to advance the interests of undergraduate teaching and learning at K-State.

Nellis said Sorensen exemplifies what is best in university teachers.

"As a faculty member, Chris is truly dynamic and engages students in ways that extends their knowledge in physics as well as helps them understand the usages of physics in our broader world," Nellis said.

The zero-gravity demonstration was one of nearly 130 lab demonstrations that Sorensen and a team of four undergraduate students developed that were integrated in engineering physics studios in 1999. Sorensen said he sought to put demonstrations in the hands of the students to integrate hands-on and problem solving abilities. In an upper-level optics course, Sorensen has led a team that has integrated lab and lecture into one, so that students can learn about a concept and then immediately try it out themselves, a structure repeated throughout the class time.

At K-State, Sorensen has taught at all levels, from Physics 101 to the graduate level. This fall he will teach Physics 102, which he describes as "a tour of the universe from the very smallest quarks to the ultimate large scale of our universe, a tour that will fire up your desire to know."

Sorensen said he will spend his time as Coffman Chair developing an interdisciplinary program in the sciences. It's an emphasis he understands, as he is working with an interdisciplinary team on a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study the behavior of nanoparticles. Sorensen also is an adjunct professor of chemistry.

"In the sciences especially we find that many of the current research projects both in the nation and across the world require the capabilities of more than one discipline," Sorensen said. "You might need a chemist, a biologist and a physicist working on a project that requires all of this expertise."

Sorensen also hopes to spread the interdisciplinary approach beyond the sciences. As an example he noted the physical science underpinnings of art that show how artists like Pablo Picasso were attempting to represent multiple perspectives simultaneously while scientists like Albert Einstein were exploring the idea of a fourth dimension. Those types of interdisciplinary connections are something Sorensen wants to explore on the K-State campus as Coffman Chair for Distinguished Teaching Scholars.

"An educated person should see the syntheses of knowledge across all disciplines," he said.

Sorensen has been at K-State since 1977. He earned a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Nebraska, and a master's and a doctorate in physics from the University of Colorado. He has received numerous honors for his teaching, including two William L. Stamey Awards for Teaching from K-State's College of Arts and Sciences; K-State's Commerce Bank Undergraduate Teaching Award, Commerce Bank Distinguished Graduate Faculty Award and the Presidential Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching; and was named a University Distinguished Professor, K-State's highest faculty honor. He also is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, was named a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and received the David Sinclair Senior Scientist Award from the American Association for Aerosol Research.

Courtesy of K-State Media Relations