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Science professors earn top Purdue teaching awards


Physics and Astronomy professor Erica Carlson (right) reacts to winning a 2017 Murphy Award. Chemistry professor Marcy Towns (left) holds the sign.

Erica Carlson, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, was named a 2017 Murphy Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching winner.

The award – a tribute to late history professor Charles B. Murphy – is the highest undergraduate teaching award at Purdue, and in traditional Murphy fashion, Carlson was surprised with the news mid-class March 22. Balloons, cheering from colleagues, cameras and microphones invaded her physics class. Students and especially Carlson were shocked then elated by the surprise.

Carlson credits the passion for her field and the drive to mold young minds as to what led her to the Murphy honor.

“I love the challenge of communicating complex ideas in a simple way,” Carlson stated, “and I love getting to communicate the beauty of physics and the power of logic. But my favorite part of teaching is watching those ‘ah-ha!’ moments happen as students master the material.”

In recent years, Carlson has created her own programs designed to reach students of all ages. Some highlights include:

The Murphy Award is accompanied by a $10,000 cash award and induction into Purdue's Teaching Academy, which provides leadership for the improvement of undergraduate, graduate and outreach teaching.

Murphy taught at Purdue from 1927 to 1970.

Carlson said she would be donating her cash award with the award to the Purdue chapter of Generation Justice’s Run for Justice event.

“We believe that this generation can end slavery for good,” Carlson said.  

Earlier that week, Stephanie Gardner, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences was ambushed in similar fashion. She was given an Exceptional Early Career Award, recognizing outstanding undergraduate teaching among Purdue's early career, tenure-track faculty. Recipients of the award will receive a $5,000 award with additional funds for a department business account.

I strive to be a reflective teacher,” Gardner explained. “This takes many forms and includes considering what is important for students to learn, being responsive to the students and their learning, reflecting my effectiveness in facilitating their learning, and revision and refinement of instructional approaches and materials. 

“I teach by backward design, a practice in which you identify what it is that you want your students to know or know how to do, identify ways in which they can demonstrate their learning, and then design meaningful and engaging learning opportunities for them. This approach helps to clarify my expectations for the students about what is to be mastered and also helps me make sure that I am focused in my instruction and assessment. …  I have been teaching some of my classes for 10 years and I am always tweaking them.”

A list of past Murphy Award and Early Career Award recipients is at A list of all winners of teaching awards is at


Biological Sciences professor Stephanie Gardner (left) is congratulated for winning a 2017 Exceptional Early Career Award.

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