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Dr. Shawn Stone named BVU George Wythe Award Winner

May 22, 2020 4:25pm

Dr. Shawn Stone, Professor of Physics and Computer Science, today was named the 34th recipient of the George Wythe Award, Buena Vista University’s highest honor for excellence in teaching, during the University’s Employee Recognition Celebration, shown by video.

The award caps a busy spring for the 21-year BVU teaching veteran, who works to produce and one day market the Lake Energy Extraction Project (LEEP), an invention designed to harness vertical wave energy from bodies of water such as Storm Lake. Stone has spent the semester fine-tuning the apparatus with the assistance of BVU seniors David Arona and London Van Horbeck, both physics majors.

“Recently, I was fooling around with a magnet and noticed something bizarre and I couldn’t find anything in the literature about this certain magnetic-field effect,” he says. “It has given me an idea to try that may now simplify and improve the device, making it feasible to generate much more electricity than anticipated.”

Stone sees the invention as supplemental technology to wind and solar power devices. He sees the journey to this discovery as something else, maybe more. “I’ve gone from ‘no chance’ with this to, ‘I’ve got a chance,’” he says.

Two other student-led projects have had his attention as well. The first is a super-computer that uses CPUs and GPUs to model solar system formation with Marco Uribe; the second is a glove offering muscle resistance in virtual reality with Greg Tystahl.

Stone also worked for much of the spring producing bands for face shields used by medical professionals in the battle against COVID-19. Stone has used BVU’s 3-D printer, purchased with funds from the Stine Endowment, to print bands for 3,000 shields distributed to medical facilities in Iowa and Minnesota.

The 1989 Bemidji High School graduate lauds his algebra II teacher, Gary Breitag, with opening a window to his professional world when Stone was barely a teen. Word problems, he says, often the bane of middle school and high school students, nearly had Stone retreating from his favorite subject.

“I will always remember the day Mr. Breitag taught me to take a word problem and turn it into math,” Stone says. “I was so frustrated and ready to give up, but he didn’t let me. He showed me the magic and I use it every day. I’m not overstating it when I say it changed my life.”

Stone took all the math, science, and physics he could at Bemidji High, where he still holds the school record in the 100-meter sprint at 10.95 seconds. He ran on the track team as a freshman at Bemidji State University but gave up the sport as his love for physics intensified. He graduated with a degree in engineering physics and went on to graduate school at the University of North Dakota, then earned a doctorate at the University of Kansas at Lawrence.

In Stone’s first year at BVU in 1999, he spearheaded the development of the first parallel computer at BVU, working in tandem with members of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). Soon after he constructed a web run robot with students and Professor Ken Schweller (another Wythe Award honoree).

“As a tutor, I remember reliving the magic of physics when I’d see the light come on in someone’s eyes as they ‘got it,’” Stone says. The feeling never gets old. Neither does feedback from students who’ve gone on to save lives or make advances in technology, medicine, and quality of life.

“A student in one of my physics classes goes on to medical school and comes back to say that stuff we covered about pressure helped in their understanding of the heart,” Stone says. “Those are the moments you remember.”

In short, he says, he doesn’t teach science as much as he gets students to understand how they might solve problems. It’s what Mr. Breitag did decades ago.

Dr. Jason Shepherd, Professor of Computer Science, who chaired the Wythe Award Committee this year says the regard students and colleagues have for Stone came through in nominations, noting in examples like this shared by a former student: “While a graduate student pursuing a degree in condensed matter physics, I found that Dr. Stone’s lectures and teaching style prepared me for graduate level courses better than any other teacher I had. When I began graduate school, I was one of only two students in my class that came from small, four-year liberal arts schools, as opposed to large research universities. I was very nervous and questioned my own preparedness. However, these concerns were unfounded, as I quickly realized that indeed I was just as prepared, or in some cases more prepared, for graduate course work than my peers that had completed their undergraduate work at R1 universities. While I finished my graduate work, several of them did not.”

It was Shepherd, a past Wythe Award winner, who notified Stone of the award, going through Stone’s wife, Dr. Wind Goodfriend, BVU Professor of Experimental Psychology, to deliver the news. “When Jason won the award, it was his wife, Dr. Lisa Shepherd, who broke the news to him,” Stone says. “And Jason wanted the same experience for me. So, he called and told Wind and she came upstairs to my office carrying a bottle of champagne.”

Stone recalls glancing at the champagne, then asking aloud, “Uh-oh, did I forget an important date?”

No, he’d won the Wythe Award.

Stone, who says he’ll celebrate this career success with his wife and sons, Isaac and Liam, and share in it with his colleagues and students, even if by a virtual means. And, he’ll begin to make plans on how to enrich his learning with the benefits of this honor, namely a semester of research or study to complement a cash stipend. A tour of science-related World War II sites piques his curiosity. Stone, after all, has taught a course on World War II science on at least three occasions at BVU.

“Dr. Dixie Bartholomew-Feis (Dean of the School of Liberal Arts) called upon other professors years ago to assist with a course of study she developed on the Holocaust,” Stone says. “I created a class and we covered how World War II was won by science, ranging from the invention of radar, rockets, the development of the atomic bomb, and more. I’m not much a traveler, but I’ve read so much pertaining to science and World War II, I’d like to tour many of these places and meet the people where science played such a critical role.”

The Wythe Award is endowed through a gift from the late BVU Life Trustee Drs. Paul and Vivian McCorkle, BVU Class of 1958. The award is named for George Wythe, the educator whose students included Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, James Monroe, and Henry Clay.

Buena Vista announced a number of other awards in annual presentations made by Interim BVU President Brian Lenzmeier in the video shown to professors and staff on Friday. Jessica Garling, BVU Director of Campus Security efforts, earned the Education for Service award, a top honor presented annually to a BVU staff member who demonstrates an outstanding work ethic and is valued as a role model within the BVU community. Garling, a BVU employee since 2014, was lauded for her nonstop efforts in selflessly serving BVU students, staff, faculty, and community members throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Her approach and demeanor were described as “unwavering” in a crisis situation.