UMass Amherst Professor of Physics Morton Sternheim Receives Chancellor's Medal

AMHERST, Mass. - Morton Sternheim, professor of physics at the University of Massachusetts, has received the Chancellor’s Medal, the highest honor given by the campus in recognition of service to the University. The medal was presented at a Feb. 7 luncheon during a day-long gathering of mathematics and science educators. Approximately 120 faculty members, family members, and area teachers attended the event at the Campus Center.

Sternheim, of the department of physics and astronomy, was cited for being a gifted teacher and researcher who has made many contributions to the quality of education throughout the commonwealth.

Dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Linda Slakey praised Sternheim for having made significant contributions at a high level, in every aspect of the faculty role: "He is a distinguished physicist, an accomplished teacher, and most recently, he has been a catalyst within the University in providing leadership and service to the larger community," she said.

In recent years, Sternheim has been best known for his prolific activities with K-12 teachers and students. He has worked on campus, and with the Five Colleges/Public School Partnership, along with numerous schools around the region. Some of his many projects include: educational bulletin boards which evolved over the years to become UMassK12, a full-service Internet forum for teachers in the commonwealth; Spacemet, a National Science Foundation (NSF)/Five Colleges program for middle school science teachers, which used space exploration to generate students’ interest in science; and 5C5E, another NSF-Partnership project, which introduced middle school teachers and students to conducting original research in the classroom. He was named 1994 Science Educator of the Year for Hampshire County by the Massachusetts Association of Science Teachers.

Sternheim grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., and is a longtime resident of Amherst. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the City College of New York, where he met the woman who would become his wife, Helen, in a first-year physics course. He went on to earn a master’s degree at New York University, and a doctorate at Columbia University. He did postdoctoral research in theoretical nuclear physics at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Yale University before joining the UMass faculty in 1965, and has been a consultant to the Los Alamos National Laboratory since 1967.

He chose physics, he says, because he found it challenging: "Physicists are trying to understand the basic laws of nature, and the basic laws of energy; how things move, how the forces work that hold atoms, molecules, and DNA together. Those laws are determined by the nature of the physical universe we’re living in, and are the basic underpinning of much of science." His primary research has been in studying the structure of atomic nuclei.

Sternheim arrived on campus during the Vietnam War era, when students were rallying for academic relevance. "It was no longer possible to say, ‘You’ll take these courses because we say they’re good for you,’" Sternheim recalls. In fact, when a pre-med student challenged Sternheim to explain the relevance of physics to medicine, he and a colleague, Joseph Kane, wrote a lengthy and well-regarded textbook addressing the question. "General Physics," which was a decade in the making, examines topics from how the lens of an eye works, to the effects of gravity on the circulatory system, to how many pounds of pressure sit on the base of a parent’s spine as he or she lifts a 40-pound child (approximately 700). The book includes a photo of Sternheim on a seesaw with his children, which illustrates equilibrium, and, inadvertently, caused the Sternheim children some minor embarrassment during their high school years.

The 1980s brought the rise of personal computers and, essentially, a career change for Sternheim. He bought an early PC on a whim, posted an electronic bulletin board for high school physics teachers, and eventually secured a series of grants that enabled educators across the state to have Internet access through the UMassK12 program, an effort he still pursues along with his wife, with whom he shares an office. In 1996, he led the effort to create the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Teacher Education Collaborative (STEMTEC), an NSF-funded project involving the Five Colleges, three neighboring community colleges, and neighboring school districts. Its fundamental objective is to improve science and mathematics teaching from elementary schools through the college level.

"So many careers require an excellent command of math and science, from biotechnology to computers," Sternheim says. "There are good jobs out there, and good opportunities." Aside from their value in the workforce, Sternheim says, math and science can help people to be better-informed citizens: "People need to understand issues such as global warming and be able to analyze facts without being swayed by emotion."

Sternheim says he is grateful for the support and funding his projects have received, both within the University and as part of the Five College community, but is quick to share the credit with his colleagues on various projects: "When you get involved in multi-campus cooperation, you do much better, because there are a lot of good resources and ideas of value," he said. "You can’t do things like this yourself."