In Memoriam: Wendell Potter

Physics Education Pioneer

Wendell Potter

Jan. 19, 2017 — Wendell H. Potter, a physics professor whose passion for teaching led to major reforms in undergraduate science education, died Jan. 8. He was 73.

Potter transformed the way physics was taught at UC Davis, abandoning dry lectures and rote memorization in favor of student-led experiments and discussion. “He was doing active learning before there were even words to describe it,” said Bob Svoboda, chair of the Department of Physics.

In 1996, Potter led the launch of Physics 7, a one-year introductory course for science majors. Inspired by Potter’s summer work with elementary school teachers, Physics 7 focuses on principles and ideas that students will encounter in their courses and careers rather than following a textbook. Most of the learning takes place in small student groups, with faculty and teaching assistants guiding discussion and exploration of ideas.

“Wendell taught me how to teach through listening, through ideas, and through conversation instead of equations,” said one of his former graduate students, Brenda Weiss (Ph.D., physics, ’97). “I've been blessed to share in his work and will continue to profit from his advice and influence in physics and in life.”  

Potter approached his educational reforms as a scientist, rigorously testing and evaluating classroom innovations. He established the UC Davis Physics Education Group, among the first of its kind in the United States and a model for others across the nation. Graduate students in the group earned a Ph.D. in physics for conducting research in physics education. Potter was also involved with K-12 science teaching reform and the Sacramento Area Science Project, and twice served as the chair of the UC Committee on Preparatory Education.

“Wendell contributed greatly to teaching in our department and across the country,” said Chuck Fadley, distinguished professor of physics. 

Wendell Potter at blackboard

With his trademark beard and wide smile, Potter was known for his kindness and generosity with students and colleagues. “What really made Wendell so great at what he did was that he loved learning, and he shared that love with everyone he worked with,” said former graduate student Cassandra Paul (Ph.D., physics, ’12). “It was impossible not to get swept up by the passion and excitement he had for figuring things out,” said Paul, now an assistant professor of physics and astronomy and science education at San Jose State University.

Potter earned his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and joined UC Davis as an assistant professor in 1970. His research in condensed matter physics focused on magnetic forces, such as interactions between atomic particles. Potter served as the physics department’s vice chair for undergraduate affairs and administration for more than 20 years, until his retirement in 2005. He remained active in teaching and research through 2015 as a senior lecturer emeritus. 

For his contributions, Potter was honored with the UC Davis Distinguished Teaching Award in 2005 and the Distinguished Service Award in 1996. The south residence hall at Tercero Residence Complex was also named in his honor.

He was a member of the American Physical Society, the American Association of Physics Teachers, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Educational Research Association and Sigma Xi.

Potter is survived by his wife, Jane Potter of Pacifica, and daughters Kelly Conley, Alameda; Carrie King, Groveland; Corrie Jo Potter, Redwood City; and Katy Donato, Sacramento.

A memorial service is being planned; for information contact Tracy Lade, Department of Physics. Messages of sympathy and memories of Potter may be sent to Tracy Lade.

By Becky Oskin, Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences