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Barbara Whitten to Receive Oersted Medal

Colorado College Professor Emerita of Physics Barbara Whitten has been named the 2018 recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Oersted Medal. The award, which will be presented by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) in San Diego on Jan. 9, recognizes Whitten’s “outstanding, widespread, and lasting impact on the teaching of physics through her work on diversity and inclusion in physics,” says the organization.

“She was a pioneer in providing meaningful scholarship on this topic and her work continues to change the ways in which departments think about their inclusiveness,” notes the AAPT. “Her work was the forerunner of current efforts to explore ways in which gender and sexual identity interact with development of an identity as a physicist. As the physics community strives to be more inclusive, we honor and celebrate the work of Barbara Whitten.”

Whitten has a variety of interests in physics, both in terms of technical physics and service to the profession. She has maintained an active technical physics program that has most recently focused on computational environmental physics. Whitten has involved students in her research, taught all levels of the undergraduate curriculum, developed novel courses, and served as a founding member of CC’s Feminist and Gender Studies program. This means that from its inception, the Feminist and Gender Studies program has had a natural scientist as part of its interdisciplinary faculty governing committee.

Years ago, when seeking to increase the number of women and other underrepresented groups in undergraduate physics programs, Whitten researched why some departments seemed to be more successful in graduating women and underrepresented minorities than others. Working through the American Physics Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Physics, she developed and led a site visit program in which a team of faculty and students visited several institutions, interviewing faculty, staff, and undergraduate students. After each visit, the team created a summary of their findings. The site visit findings culminated in "What Works for Women in Undergraduate Physics?" featured in Physics Today in 2003.

One of the main findings was that what improved the departmental climate for women also helped the men in the department. What was good for women in physics helped all undergraduates thrive. By the end of the project, Whitten had received funding through the National Science Foundation. The findings continue to influence the ways in which physics departments seek to become more inclusive communities.

Whitten also has championed the role of peer mentoring and near-peer mentoring to help mentor junior faculty and on-going professional development at all stages. Along with four colleagues, she pioneered a long-distance, mutual mentoring network. Whitten is a co-principal investigator of the NSF Advance-funded AAPT project, “Mutual Mentoring to Combat Isolation in Physics.” This project grew out of an earlier NSF project in 2008 that created an ongoing peer mentoring group. Those who benefitted from the initial project found it to be so successful, they wanted to extend the program. In drafting the proposal, Whitten was instrumental in providing the intellectual merit section of the proposal. She researched the field of mentoring in the sciences and was able to provide the needed research basis for the proposal.

Whitten earned her B.A. in physics at Carleton College and her M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Rochester. Prior to joining the CC faculty in 1978, she taught in the Western College Program of Miami University and worked as a research scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. She retired from CC at the end of the 2016-17 academic year.