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UConn’s First Female Physics Professor Reaches 45-year Milestone

Physics professor Cynthia Peterson outside the Planetarium on North Eagleville Road. Peterson has taught classes in the facility for all of her 45 years. (Photo by Sean Flynn)

Physics professor Cynthia Peterson outside the Planetarium on North Eagleville Road. Peterson has taught classes in the facility for all of her 45 years. (Photo by Sean Flynn)

A lot has changed in the field of astronomy since the late 1960s, when Cynthia Peterson joined the UConn faculty as the first female professor in the physics department and people first walked on the moon.

Just a year after she began, the University needed someone to teach astronomy, and Peterson agreed. She estimates she has taught more than 9,000 UConn undergraduates, not to mention numerous students and others attending UConn outreach programs, over the past four-and-a-half decades.

Peterson is one of three UConn employees celebrating their 45th year at the University this month. The others are business professor Vincent Carrafiello and professor of law Lewis Kurlantzick. A further 180 employees are being recognized for milestones of 25 years of service (in increments of five) or more, with an event in Rome Ballroom today.

Peterson says astronomy has changed so fast, it has been like teaching a new class every year. Not only have the Hubble Telescope and Kepler space observatory, for example, vastly accelerated the discovery of the universe, nearly 2,000 planets have been discovered outside the solar system. Astronomers now have access to thousands of images online, including deep space photos and NASA videos, and can observe the universe in real time “24-7,” using pictures taken from different time zones around the world.

Teaching at the college level has also been transformed over the years. Computers are ubiquitous, and most students now use personal computing devices. Learning is both more interactive and more self-directed, says Peterson, and students are far more invested in their independent research projects than they were when learning was more passive.

Some things haven’t changed, though: lab work is still important, she says, and there is nothing to beat live “eye-to-eyepiece” telescope observation rather than just looking at pictures.

Read the full story at UConn Today.

By Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu


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