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Physics professor wins Felton Jenkins Jr. Hall of Fame Faculty Award

Dr. Hasitha Mahabaduge, assistant professor of physics (center).

Dr. Hasitha Mahabaduge, assistant professor of physics, was recently named the 2020 recipient of the University System of Georgia (USG) Board of Regents Felton Jenkins Jr. Hall of Fame Faculty Award—bestowed for “a strong commitment to teaching and student success.”

Mahabaduge is the third Georgia College professor in three years to earn this prestigious recognition. Associate Professor of Economics Dr. Christopher Clark received the award in 2019 and Associate Professor of Teacher Education Dr. Betta Vice in 2018.

“We received many outstanding nomination portfolios this year,” wrote USG Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Tristan Denley in the award letter. “When the review committee met to discuss the nominations and finalize their recommendations, they voted unanimously to recommend you as this year’s winner.”

The Felton Jenkins Jr. Hall of Fame Faculty Award is one of six annual Teaching in Excellence awards presented by the USG Board of Regents. Mahabaduge will be honored, along with other recipients, at the Scholarship Gala Feb. 21 in Atlanta.

“It’s not only a recognition but a validation of the work I do,” Mahabaduge said. “Some things I do are different from the approaches a traditional lecturer might take.”

It’s these unorthodox approaches to teaching that helped him win the award. It all started in 2016, the year Mahabaduge came to Georgia College. A former student, alumnus James Dillon Vogt, approached the new Sri Lankan professor for a favor. Vogt had heard of Mahabaduge’s doctoral research at the University of Toledo in Ohio and post-doctoral research at the University of Colorado's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Mahabaduge’s group set a world record at NREL—one he still holds—for the most efficiency in a solar cell.

Vogt asked the young instructor if he’d teach a course on renewable energy outside of class, one-on-one. Mahabaduge didn’t hesitate. It required extra time and voluntary course overload, while organizing a research lab. But Mahabaduge knew he could keep up with solar research by teaching Vogt. Word of his generosity spread and, soon, 10 more physics seniors were taking the special-topic course.

“I have given several presentations at Teaching and Learning conferences, where I say ‘Every good love story starts with a ‘yes,’” Mahabaduge said. “My love story with teaching started with saying ‘yes’ to that student.”

Left: Alumni Dillon Vogt and Anderson Kendrick driving Georgia College’s first solar-powered golf cart. Right: Baldwin County first and second graders
learn about renewable energy from Mahabaduge’s physics students.

The class resulted in Georgia College’s first solar-powered golf cart. That project led to a student-led renewable energy workshop for kids, which became an annual event. For four years, Mahabaduge’s physics students have explained complex physics to elementary school children with fun, hands-on experiments. Next month, they’ll install solar panels at a Baldwin County school.

These activities garnered Mahabaduge some attention. He was chosen for USG’s Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) Fellows program in 2017, and the Governor’s Teaching Fellows Program at the University of Georgia in 2019. Dr. Mary Carney, co-director of SoTL, said Mahabaduge was “exceptional among this group” of outstanding faculty from across the state and is “exemplary of the highest level of integrating research and teaching to achieve great student outcomes.”

New courses Mahabaduge developed—in areas like solid state physics, thermodynamics and renewable energy—have put the university’s physics curriculum on par with the rest of the nation, said Dr. Kenneth McGill, former chair of chemistry, physics and astronomy.

Mahabaduge praised two important mentors in his life. Dr. Kithsiri Jayananda, his undergraduate advisor at the University of Colombo Sri Lanka, where Mahabaduge got his bachelor’s degree in physics, and Dr. Alvin Compaan, a recognized researcher in solar energy, who accepted Mahabaduge in his research group at the University of Toledo, where he got his doctorate.

A Georgia College student once asked Mahabaduge why he doesn’t make more money with a job in California’s Silicon Valley. The answer is simple: Mahabaduge wants to take the teaching and research knowledge he’s been given and give back.

Dr. Mahabaduge and senior physics major Bo Cavender at the Great Wall of China in December 2019.

Every year, he helps students win summer REUs (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) at universities nationwide. In December 2019, Mahabaduge took physics senior Bo Cavender to China for a month—exposing him to graduate-level research and equipment not available at Georgia College. In addition, Mahabaduge just got back from visiting the University of Sri Jayawardenapura in Sri Lanka, where he established an exchange program with Georgia College.

It’s gestures like these and personal attention that make Mahabaduge beloved among his students.

Growing up, Mahabaduge learned patience and good teaching from his father, who taught English. Sinhalese is his native language. Most Sri Lankans are afraid at first to learn English. This is similar to non-science majors who take introductory physics. Mahabaduge must address student fears first, before he can teach. His experiences with a new language help him sympathize with students who struggle.

One former student, recent graduate Aidan Burleson, wrote in his nomination of Mahabaduge: “He has a clear desire to reach out to all students, evident from his almost-stubborn attempts to ensure students have a clear understanding of each concept.”

More than the award itself, Mahabaduge said he appreciates these reflections from students. He’s humbled by the support from Provost Costas Spirou, his department chairs and colleagues. He thanks Graduate Librarian Jeff Dowdy for coming to his classes and teaching students how to conduct research.

Every step of the way, he sought assistance—from the Office of Grants and Special Projects; the Center for Teaching and Learning; C-bEL (Community-Based Engaged Learning); and MURACE (Mentored Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavors). Mahabaduge acquired about $100,000 from various campus sources to start and fund his research lab.

The best advice he can give other professors is to “knock on every door” and utilize all resources Georgia College has to offer.

“That is the importance of Georgia College, and why I chose to teach at Georgia College, the focus on undergraduate research,” Mahabaduge said. “In physics, every action has a reaction. Others have taught and mentored me. Now it’s my turn to give back and give my students the same experience.”

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