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SCU physics professor best in state

From taking students skydiving to playing broomball on ice, Phil Kesten works hard at getting his students involved in the process of learning.

Kesten, associate professor of physics and chair of the physics department at Santa Clara University, was honored with one of the top awards in college teaching, being named the California Professor of the Year by The Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Education (CASE).  Kesten and other winners were honored Nov. 17 at a 2005 Professors of the Year luncheon and a congressional reception in Washington, D.C.

Known for his innovative teaching techniques, as well as his devotion to his students, Kesten has taught at SCU since 1990.  

“I’m always looking for ways to bring them into the enterprise,” Kesten said. “They can’t be passive.” He engages students by narrating interesting stories about electromagnets, subatomic particles, astrophysics, and the origins of life.  For a homework assignment, he might ask them to figure out how much it would cost to cover the state of Nebraska in gold. "I wasn't the best student as an undergraduate," said Kesten. "But my own struggles back then make me better able to connect with that kind of student now... I love what I do."

“He gets students excited about the material,” said his physics department colleague, Associate Professor Rich Barber. 

  Kesten has also been instrumental in the development of the Residential Learning Community (RLC) program at SCU.  He initiated the first four-year learning community, now known as da Vinci, and is the director of the entire RLC program on the campus.

  Kesten is also vice president of strategic directions for Burlingame-based  Docutek, a division of SirsiDynix.  Docutek, which provides e-learning collaboration for students and libraries, grew out of a project Kesten started at SCU in the 1990s. 

The CASE and Carnegie awards are considered the Oscars of college teaching.  A professor is chosen in each state, along with four U.S. professors of the year.  SCU professor Francisco Jimenez was named one of the U.S. Professors of the Year in 2002.

Colleges and universities nominate faculty members for the awards, and CASE evaluated about 400 nominees based on the professors' impact on and involvement with undergraduate students, their scholarly approach to teaching and learning, contributions to education within their schools and communities, and support from colleagues and students. CASE then forwards a list of finalists to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which selects the winners.

John Lippincott, president of CASE, said the national and state winners embody what is best in undergraduate education. "It is clear that for our state and national Professors of the Year, teaching is a calling, not merely a job," Lippincott said. "Through their remarkable efforts inside and outside of the classroom, these professors have profoundly changed the lives of their students, providing them with a solid foundation upon which to build the rest of their lives."  

About Santa Clara University

Santa Clara University, a comprehensive Jesuit, Catholic university located in California’s Silicon Valley, offers its 8,213 students rigorous undergraduate curricula in arts and sciences, business, and engineering, plus master’s and law degrees. Distinguished nationally by the third-highest graduation rate among U.S. masters’ universities across the country, California’s oldest higher-education institution demonstrates faith-inspired values of ethics and social justice. More information is online at

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