Keith Willson with two students

Dr. Keith Willson: From industry to the classroom

Physics instructor takes his real-world experience into the classroom to challenge students to ask questions.

Dr. Keith Willson always planned on earning the highest degree in his field of study.

“My dad had a doctorate degree. He was an industrial chemist. Until I was 10, I thought everyone did that,” Willson says.

But although he enjoys teaching, he didn’t always plan on doing it full time. In fact, some of his physics colleagues might describe his career path from industry to academia as “curvilinear.”

After working for the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and Pittsburgh-based Bayer Polymers LLC, Willson accepted a position as an assistant professor of physics and mathematics at Geneva College, his alma mater.

Seven years later, he began teaching courses at Penn State Beaver as an adjunct lecturer. When a longtime physics professor retired in 2014, Willson was offered a full-time faculty position. In Willson’s words, it was “a happy set of circumstances” that led him here.

His current course load includes Mechanics; Electricity and Magnetism; Fluids and Thermal Physics; and Wave Motion and Quantum Physics. He enjoys all of his classes, but says Wave Motion and Quantum Physics is his favorite.

“By the time you make it to that one, you’ve passed through the fire and developed the good habits you need to succeed,” he explains.

Willson describes the classes he teaches as building blocks.

“Students learn about quantum mechanics, Einstein’s relativity, optics. Then they can start answering questions like ‘how do my eyeglasses work?’ ‘How does GPS work?’”

Since there is a lot we don’t know about physics, it’s not always the answers that interest Willson. It’s critical-thinking and theory.

That’s the thing he most likes about teaching, “the joy of having students that ask good questions.”

Education

Ph.D. in Physics, Carnegie Mellon University

Master of Science in Colloid, Polymer, and Surface Science, Carnegie Mellon University

Master of Science in Physics, Carnegie Mellon University

Bachelor of Science in Physics, Geneva College