November 2019: Shannon Willoughby

Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana

Shannon Willoughby

  • Member since 2006
  • Associate Professor
  • Bozeman, Montana

About Shannon

In high school, physics was the most difficult and rewarding class I took. My teacher, Mr. K., was a natural storyteller: a lesson on kinematics was woven into tales of his past life as a smokejumper. Newton’s laws taught during a discussion of the construction of a huge bridge in town. On the last day of class, Mr. K. rounded us all up and we got on a bus to a nearby amusement park. Timing the ascent of a roller coaster, I suddenly knew: one day I would become a physicist.

Indeed, I continued my studies, earning a BS, Masters, and Ph. D. all in physics. During my studies, my mom (repeatedly) suggested I try teaching. “Nope, that’s not for me.” Was my standard response. However, as a postdoc at the Colorado School of Mines, the department head said I could teach any class I wanted. I chose to teach physics III, and I quickly discovered that my mom was right. I absolutely loved teaching. My goal for each lecture was to craft a story, to share with my students the excitement I felt when I first took physics. Stories of the experiments by JJ Thompson, Millikan, and Compton unfolded each day as a prelude to quantization. Teaching became my passion.

When I became a professor at Montana State University, a colleague told me about AAPT. Realizing that other people also care deeply about teaching physics has motivated me to go to almost every conference since I joined over ten years ago. The opportunity to collaborate, share techniques and discuss physics with other teachers is something I treasure.

Here at MSU, my research group frequently collaborates with people from other disciplines. This requires us to be able to communicate effectively with people who are experts in other fields.

Currently, I have an NSF funded project to improve the oral communication skills of STEM graduate students. Through improvisation, podcast creation, and storytelling, these students are becoming much more effective at communicating with non-scientists and with creating a narrative arc for their research that is compelling and captivating to a lay audience. Ultimately, I hope these students go on to inspire future generations like Mr. K. inspired me so many years ago.