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Feature

Serge Rudaz

One of the U's most popular teachers, physics professor Serge Rudaz is heading the effort to create a campuswide University Honors Program.

He takes the honors

Physics professor Serge Rudaz leads creation of a campuswide University Honors Program

By Deane Morrison

April 3, 2007

As freshman challenges go, the three-semester honors sequence in physics is about as rigorous as it gets. So comprehensive are the first two semesters that honors physics students aren't required to take the third class. So why would anybody do it? Serge Rudaz is why. Turns out most students opt for the third class because of him. A favorite of students by any measure, Rudaz has a knack for bringing the most complicated concepts down to earth. In January his service to honors students took a quantum leap when he became founding director of the fledgling University Honors Program, which grew out of the strategic positioning process and will welcome its first students in fall 2008. Each college on the Twin Cities campus now has its own honors program, but the new campuswide program will integrate them all, bringing students from all walks of academia into close contact with each other and with mentors from both the University and the surrounding community. Students will be encouraged to explore opportunities of every conceivable kind, from scientific research to artistic creativity. And if projects cut across traditional lines, so much the better; often, it's exactly that kind of cross-pollination that sparks the most innovative ideas. Although he's been on the University faculty for 25 years, Rudaz finds the prospect of opening up new vistas for the U's best students fresh and exciting. "I think the new program is trying to provide as many students as possible a really universal experience," he says. "I want to build bridges and get students interrested in subjects that they didn't know about, and at a very high level." To pique the interest of students, the University must give them early access to solid advising and to faculty, Rudaz says. Besides leading the creation of the new honors program, he sees his job as making sure the students already in an honors program get the kind of experience they expect and are exposed to further opportunities. To do that, he wants to see more classes for honors students, more honors sections of regular courses, and more interactions between students and people from the Twin Cities' abundant supply of professionals in industry and the arts.

"I'd like students to learn not just the content, but how to think like a practitioner--that is, like a writer, a chemist, an economist, and so forth," says Rudaz.

"I hope to see science classes for nonscience honors students," Rudaz explains. "For example, classes on renewable energy, the human genome project and ethical issues. I'd like students to learn not just the content, but how to think like a practitioner--that is, like a writer, a chemist, an economist, and so forth." To bring the program to fruition, Rudaz has been consulting with representatives of all the colleges on the Twin Cities campus, who find the prospect of exposing students to vistas beyond their field of study appealing. "The effort that Serge is initiating campuswide offers all UMTC students greater access to knowledge resources throughout the University and beyond, including in communities outside the University walls," says Craig Hassel, chair of the undergraduate honors program in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. The broad perspective required of a University Honors Program director comes naturally to Rudaz. Born and raised in bicultural Montreal, he did his undergraduate work at McGill University and earned two graduate degrees from Cornell University. He has an abiding love of classical music of all kinds and has traveled widely, including research appointments at the University of Paris and the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. As a physicist, Rudaz has an enviable record. A theoretician whose main tools are blackboard and chalk, he likes to say that he made "a small contribution" to what physicists call the Standard Model, the theory of how matter and energy interact. Among the very tiniest building blocks of matter are particles called quarks. Six quarks are known, but before the sixth was discovered, Rudaz helped work out how its presence would show up in experiments. In 1995 physicists recognized his contributions in this and other areas by electing him a fellow of the American Physical Society. He also is the only physicist working outside Canada to receive the Herzberg Medal, given by the leading Canadian scientific and engineering society to recognize not only achievement in research, but influence as well. Beyond developing and teaching the University of Minnesota's honors physics sequence, Rudaz has served as director of undergraduate studies and of the National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, which exposes promising undergraduates from around the country to the riches of the University and the Twin Cities. "It's a great recruiting tool," Rudaz observes. In the classroom, he is known for his ability to explain complex problems from a variety of angles. "He has his own personal style," says sophomore and honors engineering student Tracy Powell, who took all three semesters of honors physics from Rudaz. "He's really great about showing how everything ties together. But what I really learned was how to think. I learned how to reformulate my mind to approach problems, and that there are so many different ways to solve problems. Also, he was always willing to sit down with me. His door was always open." In honors classes, she adds, "everybody in the class wants to be there. That makes a difference." Nor did the intellectual energy flow in just one direction. "[After teaching the honors sequence], I realized how stimulating it was to teach physics to freshman students who were really motivated," Rudaz says. And speaking of honors, he has won the "Outstanding Instructor" (1992) and "Best Instructor" (1998) awards from the Institute of Technology Student Board and the George W. Taylor/ITAS Award for Distinguished Teaching (2006). The citation for the Taylor award includes "... for making difficult subjects engaging." As he continues the task of organizing the UHP, Rudaz hopes all students--not just honors--will share the excitement of learning. "Even the best-prepared students from high school may not know [the University] is a repository of knowledge through the ages," he says. "Music, law, languages, sciences--it's all here. I want them to know they can find anything here and that this will become part of every student's experience."