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Physics Professor Honored with Prestigious American Physical Society Award

Richard Peterson, university professor of physics emeritus, received a distinguished award from the American Physical Society for his outstanding achievements as an undergraduate professor.

University Professor of Physics Emeritus Richard “Dick” Peterson is the 2017 honoree of the American Physical Society (APS) Jonathan F. Reichert and Barbara Wolff-Reichert Award for Excellence in Advanced Laboratory Instruction. The award—presented by the largest physics community in the U.S. (and, arguably, the world)—seeks to recognize “outstanding achievement in teaching, sustaining, and enhancing an advanced undergraduate laboratory course or courses at a U.S. institution.” Peterson will be the 4th U.S. physics professor to receive the award, which was established in 2012.

In his 36 years at Bethel, Peterson has been a champion for advanced lab efforts—playing a key leadership role in advancing the physics and engineering programs and helping the school garner national recognition. At its most basic level, “advanced lab” refers to almost any student laboratory experience beyond a general physics course. But Bethel’s advanced labs seek to blur the boundary between “class” and “research” with a unique, project-oriented approach.

“As you can imagine, if you’re doing [lab projects] at a high level—and we do—some of this stuff is publishable as research,” Peterson says. “Project-oriented means you don’t just do standard, cut-and-dry things.” In addition to the educational benefits, Peterson explains that such an approach helps students determine whether they enjoy research or want to pursue a different career path. “Our job is to help students find their calling.”

Chad Hoyt, associate professor of physics and engineering, is one of three Bethel physics professors who were first influenced by Peterson as undergraduate students. Hoyt nominated Peterson for the award. “A lot of us in [the Department of Physics] who now try to inspire students, were inspired by Dick Peterson,” he says. Hoyt, who studied under Peterson from 1990 to 1994 and has since worked alongside him for 10 years, says that the nomination was a no-brainer. “The description of the award is pretty much a description of Dick Peterson,” he says. “He’s done a lot for the department, he’s done a lot for Bethel, and he’s done a lot for the advanced lab community.”

This is not the first time that Peterson—an APS Fellow since 2004—has been recognized by the prestigious society. He has received accolades throughout his career, including the 1998 Prize for a Faculty Member for Research in an Undergraduate Institution, “for establishing an outstanding research program in applied optics.” Peterson says Bethel’s advanced lab efforts have, to some extent, come out of the nationally-recognized laser and optics work conducted by the physics department for many years. But Hoyt attributes even that success—in large part—to Peterson, who found ways to supply the school with quality optical equipment and lasers in the years before the department could apply for federal grants.

Despite all that he has achieved, Peterson remains humble—refusing to take sole credit for his success. “It’s really a department award, even though it’s given to me personally,” he says. “It’s a whole department endeavor.” Peterson will be presented with the award at the APS March meeting—a gathering that will attract over 10,000 physicists—where he will also be giving a talk on the evolution of advanced lab programs. “Because I’m old,” he jokes.

Peterson has been a key player in advanced lab efforts from the start, and was one of many renowned physicists who helped to form the Advanced Laboratory Physics Association (ALPhA) in 2007.  “He’s invested his career in these types of things,” says Hoyt. “This is a legacy that he’ll have.” 

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