Memories of Wendell Potter

With great sadness we report the loss of Sr Lecturer SOE Emeritus Wendell Potter Wendell who passed away on Sunday, January 8, 2017, surrounded by the love of his family.

Wendell joined the Physics Department faculty in 1970. He served as Vice Chair for Undergraduate Affairs & Administration with Physics for over 20 years before his retirement in 2005. Wendell devoted his career to improving the teaching techniques for introductory physics and was instrumental in the development and implementation of PHY 7 at UC Davis. He was awarded the UC Davis Distinguished Teaching Award in 2005. Wendell officially retired at the end of Fall 2005 but remained active and was recalled to service for teaching and research through 2015. He will be dearly missed.

Career History

    Ph.D., University of Illinois, 1970
    Assistant Professor, University of California, Davis, 1970-1976
    Associate Professor, University of California, Davis, 1976-1992
    Senior Lecturer w/SOE, University of California, Davis, 1992-2005


    University of California, Davis Academic Senate Distinguished Service Award, 1996
    University of California, Davis Academic Senate Distinguished Teaching Award, 2005

Personal Stories

Bob Svoboda and Wendell

Wendell joined the Physics Department faculty in 1970. He served as Vice Chair for Undergraduate Affairs & Administration with Physics from 1998 until 2005. Wendell devoted his career to improving the teaching techniques for introductory physics and was instrumental in the development and implementation of PHY 7 at UC Davis. He was awarded the UC Davis Distinguished Teaching Award in 2005. Wendell officially retired at the end of Fall 2005 but remained active and was recalled to service for teaching and research through 2015.

I remember he was one of the first people in the department I met with about teaching when I first arrive here in 2007. He was an impressive person and we will all miss him.

best regards, Bob

    Daniel Cox and Wendell

    RIP, Wendell, a terrific and devoted teacher and a supremely kind individual.

    Daniel L. Cox

    Barry Klein and Wendell

    Very sad news. Wendell was a wonderful, dedicated colleague who will be missed and remembered warmly. I worked closely with him as Vice Chair during my tenure as Chair 1992-98 and he was a wonderful friend who I will miss very much. Great person whose memory we should honor.


    Larry Coleman and Wendell

    I am greatly saddened on hearing of Wendell's passing. He was a great friend and colleague. He and I spend so many hours talking about our research and teaching. Those conversations are dear to me and in my heart and memory Wendell's spirt will continue.


    Xiangdong Zhu and Wendell

    I am terribly saddened that Wendell passed away. I thought he was doing well after retirement as I ran into him numerous times since he retired.

    He was an excellent teacher, a passionate mentor, a great colleague, and a very very kind person, always having his wide, warm smile whenever I talked with him.

    He started serving our Department as the Vice Chair before 1987 when Robert Shelton joined the department, not 1998. Professor Coleman should know. He served our Department for so long and so well as the Vice Chair. He will be dearly missed.


    Rajiv Singh and Wendell

    What a wonderful human being Wendell was! We will miss him.

    He had a strong impression on most of us who were hired when he was vice chair and in charge of teaching also. I remember Wendell telling me once why student evaluations do not count for much. Students want everything cut and dried, clear, no difficulties in understanding anything. But that is not what good teaching is. Good teaching also means creating enough doubts about what one knows so one is inspired to think beyond the presentation!


    John Gates and Wendell

    I held him in high regard, he was a good mentor to me.

    John Gates

    Wendell's First PhD student.

    Andy Albrecht and Wendell

    Wendell's passion for innovation in teaching made a huge impression on my when I interviewed here in 1997, especially in contrast to the very conservative ideas about teaching I was encountering at universities in the UK. That definitely helped me feel excited about coming here, and of course Wendell continued to be an inspiration ever since! I'll certainly miss him


    Chuck Fadley and Wendell

    I'm so sorry to hear this. Wendell was a wonderful, warm person, and contributed greatly to teaching in our dept. and across the country.


    Shirley Chiang and Wendell

    I am so sorry to hear about Wendell's passing. His dedication to teaching physics has been inspiring to all of us. In addition, when I was department chair, I had the privilege of working closely with him in his role as vice chair until his retirement. I always valued his wise counsel. We will all miss him greatly.


    Warren Pickett and Wendell

    Yes, Wendell will certainly be missed. He always had the welfare of students in mind, in innovative teaching methods especially but in several other ways as well. Early in his retirement we had caught him accidentally at restaurants in Sacramento that he liked frequent, though he was spending most of his time out of Davis near the coast.

    Wendall was a straightforward person who would let you know where he stood, with reasoning to justify it. He was a model to be remembered.


    John Rundle and Wendell

    Although I didn't know Wendell very well, I always found him to be a wonderful person and outstanding human being. We had a few very fascinating conversations about physics, life, and teaching. My wife Marie took his course for science teachers and speaks about it as one of the defining courses of here education as a teacher.

    He will be missed.

    Maxwell Chertok and Wendell

    As a new assistant professor (which used to seem quite recent and now seems a long time ago, ... but I digress) I had the privilege of team teaching Physics 7A with Wendell. We split the DLs activity by activity, while he did the lectures. I remember one day royally messing up a DL activity I was leading, and I looked to Wendell to bail me out. He merely replied in a quiet voice "just go with it... fix it..." which, of course, wasn't so hard after all. That quarter, I would sneak in to watch him lecture and was amazed how he dazzled the students. His disarming style succeeded in provoking a vociferous response from a packed Roessler 66. Wendell would twiddle with the demos while posing questions and the students would shout out their answers. He was an amazing educator!


    David Webb and Wendell

    The small group peer-peer discussions that take place in the Discussion/Lab part of the Physics 7 series are pure Wendell Potter. According to Wendell, the idea came from his work (every summer for several years in the 1980’s and the 1990’s?) with elementary school teachers. Wendell found that the elementary school teachers worked very well in groups while trying to “really understand” the relevant scientific issues they were studying so he moved that component of student-learning into the Physics 7 series as it was being developed. He also noted that these elementary school teachers sometimes became very emotional when they realized that they were capable of “really understanding” science. Some of them had apparently thought that they were (something like) “too stupid to understand science” and then found out that they could learn and understand as well as anyone else but just hadn’t had the right teacher(s). Wendell was the right teacher; maybe because he always had his focus on students making their own sense of the ideas that they were studying and maybe because he realized that speaking (students speaking, not teachers speaking) could be very important for learning.

    I wasn’t a part of the original development of the Physics 7 series but started teaching in it a year or so after it became the standard intro-physics series for biosci majors. The Discussion/Labs, that Wendell built and that I was teaching in, allowed me to see and hear (and take part in as necessary) student-student discussions of physics for 5 hours a week. This experience turned out to be revelatory for me as I learned very quickly that communication is difficult simply because it necessarily involves at least two people. First of all, I found that I might interpret a student’s question/comment one way when they meant something entirely different. Conversely, I could say something that I thought was very clear and find that students interpreted it completely differently (sometimes opposite to what I meant). In the end Wendell’s Discussion/Labs showed me that, at least for me, the best teaching involved me listening as much or more than me speaking.

    Later, as I became more interested in Physics Education Research, I learned considerably more from Wendell about teaching and learning but that is a much longer story.


    Paul Brady and Wendell

    Wendell was a cheerful, upbeat and helpful person and great colleague!

    I believe one of his first projects in the early 1970s [?] was building a polarized-proton target for CNL's neutron and planned polarized neutron beams. Our student Stan Johnsen, worked with Wendell to learn the polarized target operation.

    We eventually did develop a polarized beam and use the target Wendell successfully built to make the first measurements of the spin-correlation parameter Ayy which helped pin down the 50 MeV phase-shift parameter epsilon-1, the S-D wave mixing parameter in scattering and also in the wave function of the deuteron. The latter was Rod Reid's territory! After his PhD Stan went to work with Varian Associates, developing, among other projects, I believe, machines for medical therapies.

    Results were published in a PRL after we built the polarized neutron beam line. A high-pressure tritium target was filled from an assembly from LANL: tritium absorbed in a Uranium Pyrophoric "sponge". Deuterons from the cyclotron initiated the d + t reaction to produce the polarized neutron beam. Wendell played an important roles in a vital part of the experimental apparatus!

    Wendell's distinguished role in teaching have already been documented!

    Best wishes,

    Paul Brady

    Cassandra Paul and Wendell

    Wendell was an extremely kind and thoughtful person. He was a great advocate for students, both the physics students in his classes, and his graduate students. He was also a great educator. Much of this was due to his research and commitment to applying what he learned about pedagogy to his development of physics curricula, but I think 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. It was impossible not to get swept up by the passion and excitement he had for figuring things out.

    Wendell had a huge impact on my academic life. Our many discussions about learning (often spanning several cups of coffee) shaped my teaching philosophy and helped me build a foundation for thinking about and engaging in physics education research. If it weren't for his guidance and encouragement as my PhD adviser, I would not be where I am today.

    I will miss my mentor dearly.

    Cassandra Paul, former graduate student of Wendell's

    Linton Corruccini and Wendell

    Wendell was the only other condensed matter experimentalist when I arrived at UCD, so he was the person I interacted with the most, both in research matters and in teaching. He was a very friendly and generous guy who showed me the ropes of working at the university, and enthusiastically shared with me his philosophy of teaching. As all who worked with him know, he tremendously enjoyed teaching, was good at it, and constantly innovated. He was a kind person, both in his interactions with me and with his students at all levels. Later on, during his many years of service as departmental vice chair, I found him to be both diplomatic and very fair. I will miss him and his cheerful personality.


    Robyn Tornay and Wendell

    It is with a heavy heart that I learned of Dr. Wendell Potter's passing. I remember him as a very passionate man who cared deeply about his students, physics, and education. I learned a great deal from him while working in the physics department and I carry that through the positions that I have held within higher education as well as into my current position now. He was also someone who kept me motivated to complete my Masters. I am forever grateful for his assistance and will always remember his smile, his laugh and how he would walk into the office ready to take on whatever came his way. Thank you Dr. Potter for everything. You will be missed.

    Brenda Weiss and Wendell

    I was a physics grad student '90-'97, then a lecturer while Wendell was vice-chair '97-'02. My twin boys were born 14 years ago, and since then I have been raising and homeschooling my three children, studying education from the inside out. Wendell never let me get too far away from the PER community, and I have learned so much through continued interactions and collaboration with the PER journal club and research group.

    Wendell taught me how to teach through listening, through ideas, and through conversation instead of equations. It doesn't come as naturally as I would like -- I'm still working on it.

    I watched Wendell teach teachers during the summer, and was impressed at how they thought and talked through the ideas of kinetic energy, the dependence on mass and speed, the logical connections. Instead of Wendell lecturing on calculus and forces and derivations, they talked ideas, and took the time for the ideas to make sense.

    Wendell had a gift for asking questions in a way that allowed students to write themselves to a solution, making students think and use their toolkits of models. They were pushed to get to the heart of the physics without using a set of equations that had been memorized without making sense.

    Wendell's wide reading on teaching and learning physics has been a gift he shared freely. Through my work with Wendell in Physics 5 and Physics 7, I had a radical shift in how I thought physics should be learned. I'll always remember animated discussions between Wendell, Larry Coleman, and Chuck DeLeone as Physics 7 was born through hard work and experimentation.

    His love of physics and teaching it was contagious. In my own teaching, I tried things I wouldn't have tried without Wendell's mentoring and encouragement. I learned to help students construct their own understanding through asking questions and doing a lot of listening. I learned that it is less what I say that matters, but what students put together in their own heads, and that I have to listen to be sure that what they are putting together makes sense. I have used this in teaching my children at home. Sometimes they choose very traditional ways of learning, but they won't quit asking questions until the ideas make sense. "Sense-making" is one of Wendell's legacies. Learning through discourse is another.

    I was looking forward to spending more time learning from Wendell, but will have to be contented with the mentoring I have had. His passing leaves a big hole. He was kind and fun and hard-working and imaginative. I've been blessed to share in his work and will continue to profit from his advice and influence in physics and in life. "There's nothing wrong with bribing your kids" still makes me laugh.

    Brenda Weiss

    John W. McGrath and Wendell

    I came to the Physics Department in 1971 as a graduate student. I was thirty-three, older than even some of the professors. In 1973 I was offered and accepted the job of managing the Instructional Labs for the department. At that time the department had a policy that the instructor of an undergraduate course had total control of the lab that accompanied the course and what experiments would be performed. It was a nightmare.

    When Wendell became the Vice Chair and in charge of instruction -I remember that being in 1976- I went to him and pleaded my case that to expect me to invent new equipment and get it made and functioning in the few weeks before each quarter was insane and utterly impossible. To my surprise and joy he totally agreed. He, asking for my input, worked out a policy where the experiments were fixed but could be changed; but only in a timeline that was reasonable for developing the equipment and getting it up and running. My job went from complete chaos to a state of almost bliss. My wife used to chide that I was getting paid to play, and in a way she was right.

    We worked closely until I retired in 1999. It was the best working relationship anyone could ever hope for. He made me look good. I'll miss him.

    John W. McGrath

    Cathy Ishikawa and Wendell

    I met Wendell at a brown bag lunch series on active learning I had organized at the Teaching Resources Center when I started my science-education post-doc. He ended up being my mentor for that project and got me involved in the physics education research community despite the fact that my graduate degree was in soil science. I will always be grateful for all I learned about teaching and learning while working with Wendell and the rest of the UCD-PER group. In particular, Wendell imprinted the value of focusing on students' learning rather than my performance as a teacher.

    Wendell's lessons and example have shaped so many teachers throughout the Sacramento area (and beyond), either directly or indirectly. Not too long ago I participated in a workshop with faculty from Sacramento State (from various science disciplines) and teachers from area school districts. When I mentioned that I had worked with Wendell, I got enthusiastic nods and smiles from around the room. I suspect he will be a legend in the teacher education community for a long time to come.

    In addition to being a great mentor, Wendell was a dear friend. I will miss his kindness, humor, curiosity, and passion, but hope that I can pass a bit of it on to the students and fellow teachers I encounter.

    Cathy Ishikawa

    Scott C. Johnson and Wendell

    I was a physics PhD student at Davis in the 1990s. Although I was not one of Wendell's grad students, I worked with him so much (second only to my advisor) that I still regard him as my unofficial second advisor. I shared his passion for teaching and understanding physics in an intuitive way, and his Physics 5 and 7 courses were the embodiment of those ideas. I developed the Atoms in Motion software that he used to use in those classes (and maybe is still used; I have lost touch, regrettably, and so I don't know). Our discussions about the development of that software are among my favorite memories of my time at UC Davis. Wendell had an enthusiasm that was contagious and inspiring. I had hoped to do more physics teaching work with him at some point in the future, but now I will have to be content with the good times we had in the past. I will miss you, Wendell!

    Lisa Schwieso and Wendell

    My first position at UCD was in the Physics business office back in 2001. Wendell was one of my favorite faculty because of his infectious spunk and passion for students. Every time you saw him, you couldn't help but smile. I'll never forget one year at the holiday party, we were in the back room at Sudwerk and we were doing the gift exchange game. Wendell opened a bottle of Irish crème and was quite pleased with the gift. The MSO at the time, Teresa Overstreet, was teasing him that she was going to steal the gift. So then Wendell opened the bottle and poured a tiny bit into his coffee! He thought this would guarantee that the gift was his... but alas, Teresa stole the bottle from him! We all laughed about that for a long time afterwards. : )

    May you Rest In Peace Wendell.

    Lisa Schwieso

    James Vesenka and Wendell

    Though he preferred in being called by his first name I always addressed him as Dr. Potter. As a new graduate student I had the good fortune of having Dr. Potter as one of my thesis advisors. My dissertation research was at the intersection of condensed matter physics and biophysics, so I relied on his expertise in solid state physics in crafting my thesis. The most interesting conversations I had with him are also the one that eventually led me to a career in Physics Education Research. Before CLASP existed Dr. Potter was grappling with the most sensible way to introduce physics to students, which involved an "energy first" approach. Very sensible and powerful. It started me on a path of reformed physics instruction that eventually resulted in an approach (modeling physics) which had at its core the same powerful tools that CLASP embraced. We met in Philadelphia AAPT meeting a few years back where I had a chance to see the fruit of all his research efforts. Dr. Potter helped me identify an important aspect of PER: the best reformed instruction must be tailored to meet local needs requiring lots of patience, perseverance, and buy in from administration! Dr. Potter has always been a model for the way I approach physics instruction.

    Many thanks, Jamie

    If you'd like to contribute a personal memory of Wendell or message of sympathy, please email Tracy Lade at

    Glen Erickson and Wendell Potter, 2008

    Wendell Potter with students on Halloween

    DL is a pure passion of Wendell's

    Wendell Potter Remembered at the AAPT 2018 Summer Meeting

    Wendell Potter was remembered at the 2018 American Association of Physics Teachers summer meeting in a session titled, "Models-based Physics Education - A Wendell Potter Memorial." At the meeting, held in Washington, DC, July 28 - August 1, four of Wendell Potter's former collaborators each gave a talk honoring Professor Potter and his work in the development of CLASP courses (Collaborative Learning through Active Sense-making in Physics) for introductory physics courses for bioscience majors at UC Davis. You can view these talks below.