Carnegie Mellon University
May 05, 2020

Barry Luokkala Receives Carnegie Mellon's Ryan Award

By Ben Panko

For nearly six decades, the William H. and Frances S. Ryan Award for Meritorious Teaching has annually recognized a Carnegie Mellon faculty member who demonstrates "unusual devotion and effectiveness in teaching." To many, that description fits Physics Teaching Professor Barry Luokkala to a tee.

"Over his almost 40-year career, Barry's dedicated efforts have made him truly one of our stellar teachers," wrote Scott Dodelson, head of the Department of Physics; Curtis Meyer, associate dean of the Mellon College of Science (MCS); Professor of Physics Stephen Garoff; Associate Teaching Professor David Anderson; and senior Eric Lester in nominating Luokkala for the Ryan Award.

After initially joining Carnegie Mellon as a lab demonstrations technician, Luokkala began teaching physics at CMU in 1983. He was quickly given responsibility for the introductory lab course Experimental Physics, and he later worked to develop the Basic Experimental Physics course for students in the Health Professions Program. He also earned his Ph.D. in physics from CMU while teaching and working full-time.

"His success can be marked by the popularity of the courses," Luokkala's nominators noted. "The lab classes are always oversubscribed even as we have built more space for each of the courses."

In addition to designing, teaching and writing textbooks for both of these courses, Luokkala has also leveraged his personal passion for science fiction into developing two courses based around connecting the science and technology seen in films to what's possible in the real world.

Students are asked to decide, by reasoning or by calculation, whether or not the scenarios in the films are based on good science," Luokkala said in describing the class. "Students in the course always enjoy being able to engage the subject matter in this way and the lively discussion that occurs."

The full version of Science and Science Fiction attracts many students from outside MCS and routinely has long waitlists. Its innovative success gave Luokkala the opportunity to write a textbook that is now used at two other universities and led him to being invited to a national science fiction conference.

Outside of teaching, Luokkala has played a pivotal role in leading the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Sciences at CMU and in mentoring dozens of undergraduate, graduate and high school students.

"Throughout my career, from my earliest years as a student and even to the present day, I have been blessed with a series of outstanding role models and mentors," Luokkala said. "My role as a teacher is to do for my students what was done so well for me over the years — to do all I can to encourage the next generation to be the best that they can be."