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Jane Charlton selected as Penn State Teaching Fellow

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20 July 2015

Jane Charlton Jane Charlton, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University, has been selected to receive one of three Penn State Teaching Fellows Awards for 2015/2016. The Teaching Fellow Award was established jointly in 1986 by the Penn State Alumni Association, the Undergraduate Student Government, and the Graduate Student Association with the purpose of honoring distinguished teaching and providing incentive for teaching excellence at Penn State.

Charlton is being recognized for her creative approach to teaching that engages students by immersing them in the learning environment. She led a team that created a general-education astronomy course taught entirely through a video game. Instead of just reading a textbook, or listening to a lecture, students play as avatars who live in a colony on Mars, fly from planet to planet in the Solar System, help a baby alien find its home star and planet, and assemble a new universe from basic particles like quarks and electrons. The course follows a science-fiction, story-based approach to teaching the content of astronomy online. More than 15,000 Penn State students now have taken Charlton’s online astronomy classes, which have proven to be effective in teaching the concepts as well as providing inspiration through immersive exploration of the universe.

In her research, Charlton studies the formation and evolution of galaxies by charting the development and production of metals in the universe. Her research program has both theoretical components and observational components using data collected by ground-based observatories and NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. She learns about galaxies in different stages of development by studying the spectroscopic information picked up by the light emitted by quasars -- the most powerful type of galaxy nucleus -- as it travels across the universe. She also uses the spectra from quasars to study the physical conditions in the vicinity of the quasars and to learn how the central engines of quasars are fueled. In addition, Charlton surveys the interactions and mergers between dwarf galaxies to understand the mechanisms that are important to determine the size, shape, and origin of galaxies.

Charlton received the Annie Jump Cannon Special Commendation Honor from the American Astronomical Society in 1992. She was honored with the Faculty Associates Award for Teaching and Service at Penn State in 1997 and the President's Award for Excellence in Academic Integration at Penn State in 2015.

Charlton earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry and physics at Carnegie Mellon University in 1983. She earned master's and doctoral degrees in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago in 1984 and 1987, respectively. Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State, Charlton was a research associate in astronomy at Cornell University from 1987 to 1989 and a research associate at the Steward Observatory of the University of Arizona from 1989 to 1992. She became assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State in 1992 and was promoted to associate professor in 1998 and to professor in 2003.

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