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Physics department recruits top students

9/28/2009

Last year, Austin Peay State University physics professors started acting a little like football and basketball coaches in the offseason. They contacted high school students around the state, recruiting the best minds the way college sports’ teams recruit the best athletes.

The professors made phone calls, sent out e-mails and extended invitations for these high school students to visit campus. University President Tim Hall even mailed a few letters, encouraging them to attend APSU.
Last year, Austin Peay State University physics professors started acting a little like football and basketball coaches in the offseason. They contacted high school students around the state, recruiting the best minds the way college sports' teams recruit the best athletes.

The professors made phone calls, sent out e-mails and extended invitations for these high school students to visit campus. University President Tim Hall even mailed a few letters, encouraging them to attend APSU.

In the end, their efforts paid off. Four of Tennessee's top physics high school students — Drew Kerr, Mason Yost, Robert Baker and Sabrina Skinner — are now Austin Peay freshmen.

“Having top-notch students like this isn't just good for the program or good for Austin Peay,” Dr. Alex King, associate professor of physics, said. “It's good for the classroom. It's good for the other students.”

That's because these individuals can engage in peer instruction, he said. If they finish a lab early or if they comprehend a concept quickly, they can share their understanding with fellow students.

“It raises the bar across the board and makes everybody hit a higher target,” King said.

In the summer of 2008, 36 of the state's top physics students arrived on campus as APSU hosted its first Governor's School, which focused on computational physics. All 36 students quickly became prospective students for the department.

“I received multiple e-mails my senior year (from professors) just wanting to know how the college search was going,” Robert Baker said.

During his high school career, Baker, a Williamsport native, narrowed that search to The University of Alabama in Huntsville and Macalester College, both to which he was accepted.

“Before I attended the Gov School, I wasn't even going to bother applying to APSU,” he said. “I didn't figure I should because I didn't think I would ever go here.”

He said the change occurred during Governor's School, when he was able to “explore a very specific interest, but at the same time learn about a variety of topics from extremely intelligent faculty.” He learned calculus, computer programming, physics and how to play racquetball, among other things.

One of Baker's new classmates, Drew Kerr, of Johnson City, considered attending Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University, but his top choice was the University of Chicago. Then he met a few of the APSU professors during Governor's School.

“I primarily decided on Austin Peay instead of The University of Chicago because of my established relationship with the physics faculty of Austin Peay, but ultimately because of the immediate and continued interaction I will have, in and out of class, with my professors,” he said.

He also liked the research opportunities APSU offered. He hopes to take what he learns at the University and apply that to graduate school at The University of Chicago.

Mason Yost, a freshman from Cleveland, was accepted into Carnegie Mellon University, but he too opted for APSU after interacting with the faculty. They were the primary reason he become a Governor, but the cost also helped him make the decision.

“The second reason I chose the APSU physics program was the affordable cost of tuition,” he said. “APSU offers a physics program that is at least as good as, if not better than, the programs offered by major universities such as Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech, and at the same time the tuition is very affordable.”

These students, along with freshman Sabrina Skinner, are now attending classes at APSU. And, like a college team with a solid recruiting class, their success will be a motivator for other top academic talent to consider the APSU Department of Physics.

“It raises the profile of not only the department, but also our college and the University,” King said.

For more information, contact King at 931-221-6102 or kinga@apsu.edu. -- Charles Booth