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“A High and Humble Calling”

University Professor Emeritus of Physics Richard Peterson receives the Melba Newell Phillips Medal from the American Association of Physics Teachers.

By Aiyanna Klaphake '20

February 10, 2020 | 10 a.m.

Peterson is presented the Melba Newell Phillips Medal by fellow former AAPT President Gordon Ramsey at the Orlando Winter Meeting.

Peterson is presented the Melba Newell Phillips Medal by fellow former AAPT President Gordon Ramsey at the Orlando Winter Meeting.

University Professor Emeritus of Physics Richard ‘Dick’ Peterson is something of a legend at Bethel. His reputation for stellar teaching, passion for experimental physics, and investment in student mentorships are recognized throughout the university. Peterson’s resume also includes an impressive record of research, publications, and awards, the most recent being the Melba Newell Phillips Medal presented by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT).

Melba Newell Phillips herself was the first recipient of the eponymous award in 1982, followed by a mere 14 others over the next 37 years. Dedicated to those who significantly contribute to the AAPT and demonstrate national leadership in physics education, the award is presented only when an AAPT leader’s involvement warrants, which Peterson’s certainly does. Beginning in 1976, Peterson began work with the AAPT’s Apparatus Committee. Multiple roles within the AAPT followed this position, leading Peterson to the Executive Board where he eventually served as AAPT President in 2005.

Peterson was nominated for the award by Professor of Physics Nathan Lindquist, who knows Peterson as both a teacher and mentor. “I saw firsthand how he could create an environment in the classroom that inspired students to their best,” Lindquist explains.

Peterson’s former students agree. While majoring in elementary education and physics secondary education at Bethel, Justine Boecker Harren ’17 studied general physics taught by Peterson. “Dr. Peterson showed genuine interest in us as students and future physicists,” Boecker Harren says.

“We need to mentor and help students develop what they enjoy. We need to keep students finding their calling.”

— University Professor Emeritus Dick Peterson
During her senior year, Boecker Harren received a recommendation from Peterson to apply for a prestigious internship with the Society of Physics Students. “That internship shaped my present and future, and I would have never applied without Dr. Peterson's prompting,” she says. Even post-graduation, Boecker Harren continued working with Peterson to build her physics knowledge: “I was a graduated former student, and he was a retired professor, but he still spent time and effort helping me be successful. I would not be where I am or where I am going without Dr. Peterson's time, support, and encouragement.”

Despite his success, Peterson didn’t always plan to be an educator. In fact, as someone who didn’t particularly enjoy public speaking, he was initially determined to avoid teaching. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin River Falls, he obtained a Ph.D. in optical physics from Michigan State. It was there he was assigned a teaching assistant position that changed his mind about pursuing a career in physics education. “I found [teaching] rewarding, but not easy,” Peterson explains. “Demonstrations were a big part of helping me talk in front of a class.” This love for demonstrations would be just one part of what made Peterson’s classes so popular in years to come.
At Bethel, Peterson advocated for advancing research and high-level labs in the physics and engineering department.

At Bethel, Peterson advocated for advancing research and high-level labs in the physics and engineering department.

Following a postdoctoral research position at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Peterson began teaching full-time, first at Western Illinois University, and later at Bethel, where he would dedicate nearly 40 years of his career. His focus on providing the highest quality physics education on a national scale led to his being named Bethel’s first University Professor in 2006.

“He’s led a lot of the national discussion on how to make education better,” Lindquist says, “and by pushing research, he elevated how Bethel was perceived nationally in the physics community.”

Indeed Bethel now boasts one of the country’s larger undergraduate physics and engineering programs, with Peterson’s contributions to the department’s spectacular growth being particularly noteworthy. But while Peterson is grateful for his opportunities to promote physics at Bethel, he maintains that working with students is the best part of teaching. “We need to mentor and help students develop what they enjoy,” he says. “We need to keep students finding their calling.” As a physics teacher, Peterson clearly found his own calling, which he describes as both “high and humble.”

The AAPT presented Peterson with the Medal, a certificate, and a monetary award at their 2020 Winter Meeting in Orlando, Florida this January. At the conference, Peterson shared an address on the importance of physics education and its impact on both the student and the aspiring teacher.

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