Astronomer Chris Impey Awarded NSF's Highest Honor for Teaching and Research

Lori Stiles
May 8, 2002

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced today that it will award a Director's Award for Distinguished Teaching Scholars to Christopher Impey, University of Arizona Distinguished Professor of astronomy. The award is the foundation's highest honor for excellence in both teaching and research.

Impey is one of six university faculty members nationwide being recognized for imaginative teaching that connects undergraduates to the scholars' own outstanding research. Recipients will be honored June 19 at a ceremony at the National Academy of Science in Washington, D.C.

Impey will receive $300,000 over four years for his project to develop new instructional technologies for use in teaching astronomy to non-science majors. These include interactive Java applets that use real data to teach basic physics and astronomy concepts, virtual worlds that allow a 3D exploration of the universe at various scales, a natural language 'expert system' to answer questions across the subject matter, and a data architecture to allow flexible delivery of this content over the Internet. These instructional tools have applications in other sciences and in distance learning.

Impey received the bachelor of science degree in physics from the University of London in 1977 and the doctorate in astronomy from the University of Edinburgh in 1981.

He joined the UA Steward Observatory and astronomy department in 1986, and since has enthralled students with his excitement for astronomy. "I teach because the universe is so cool, and the simple laws that govern it are so elegant, that it makes you want to shout it from the rooftops," he once said. "Seeing young people get excited about science is a constant source of energy and enthusiasm."

Impey's research interests center on cosmology and the study of diffuse ultra-faint galaxies, active galaxies and quasars. He has more than 100 research publications in the professional literature, and has had 14 projects approved for observations with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Impey has won eight teaching awards over the past 12 years. He was the youngest person to be named University Distinguished Professor, the university's highest teaching honor.

UA Steward Observatory colleagues who nominated Impey for the Distinguished Professorship in 2000 said, "Simply stated, Chris Impey is the best teacher in our department, and ranks with the best instructors any of us have encountered in our careers."

Impey's work to develop interactive teaching materials for the Web is supported by a major NSF grant.

He is a former associate director of the NASA Arizona Space Grant Program, which supports a variety of educational and outreach activities. He has served as lead teacher at the Vatican Observatory Summer School, a unique program in astronomy and astrophyics for beginning doctoral students that convenes every two years at Castel Gandolfo, near Rome. He is a member of the Information Technology Advisory Council, which advises the UA president's cabinet on information technology issues. He is a founding member of the Board of Directors of the Astronomy Educational Journal of the American Astronomical Society.

Impey is co-author of two introductory textbooks in astronomy: "Astronomy: the Cosmic Journey" (1995) and "The Universe Revealed" (2000). He also has contributed 15 sections to the book, "Great Ideas for Teaching Astronomy" (1994) and wrote "Interactive Teaching Tools for Astronomy, Interactive Learning: Vignettes from America's Most Wired Campuses" (2000).

Other 2002 NSF Director's Distinguished Teaching Scholars are Tanya Atwater of the University of California-Santa Barbara, Robert L. Devaney of Boston University, Richard McCray of the University of Colorado-Boulder, H. Vincent Poor of Princeton University and Nicholas J. Turro of Columbia University.

"The contributions of these six remarkable individuals set a standard and provide models when we look for examples of outstanding teaching," said Judith Ramaley, NSF's assistant director for education and human resources. "Not only do these faculty members help their students learn new skills and ideas, but they also demonstrate the integration of research and education through their practice and inspire their students to conduct scholarship at the highest level."