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Richard W. Peterson:
How he has transformed the scene

Physics professor sparks an interest in science for decades of students
As a child, Richard Peterson was so shy, he didn't even want to talk in front of his class…of two people! Today, he has stood up in front of thousands of college students, inspired a generation to love physics, and proved his prowess in the classroom.

Peterson is a University Professor of Physics Emeritus at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn., where he teaches part time, a continuation of his 40+ year teaching career. He is passionate about helping students learn and discover the joys of scientific research and how things work.

From shy farm boy to physics professor
Peterson began his own education modestly, in a one-room school with two students per grade in rural Wisconsin. Growing up on a small farm, Peterson's interest in science was literally sparked by an old magneto — an electric generator that produces high-voltage currents — his dad left in the garage. Nicknaming the magneto Sparky, he loved to play and experiment with it.

Peterson continued his love of experimenting with physics in high school, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin, River Falls, with a B.S. degree in physics and math in 1964. The late 1950s and 1960s were a heroic time in American science, from the Soviet Union's launching the world's first artificial satellite to NASA's landing a man on the moon. Peterson received a NASA fellowship in physics at Michigan State University, earning his master's and doctorate degrees. He realized he had a knack and patience for optical alignment, and became a pioneer in the use of measuring with holograms.

Peterson then joined the staff at Los Alamos National Laboratory. While there, he concentrated on optical measurement, with the goal to achieve thermal-nuclear fusion — something that, in fact, still hasn't happened in a reactor producing electricity. It was at this time that Peterson had an "ah-ha" moment: He realized that whenever he talked about his favorite subject, physics, he became a completely different person. The quiet introvert would transform into an animated individual void of stage fright, especially when doing experiments. Thus, his interest in teaching was born. He turned to education and spent the next decade as a professor of physics at Western Illinois University. In 1980, Dr. Peterson joined Bethel University as Professor of Physics and Department Chair, being honored as its first University Professor in 2006.

Curiosity & Creativity Are Part of the Equation
Peterson most enjoys working with students in optical measurements, using lasers and holography to measure things of interest to engineers and physicists. He engages his students not only in applied physics (which tackles the practical need of measuring something) but also in curiosity-driven physics – attempting to answer the question "how in the world does that work?"

Take, for example, the idea Peterson had to measure the vibrating surface of a handbell with holography. Or to find out exactly what happens to a ping-pong ball when it is shot out of a PVC pipe at 700 mph, ultimately blasting through two soda cans. To Peterson, physics is exciting, and he enjoys nothing more than helping his students catch that excitement.

Peterson is particularly proud of being awarded the 1998 American Physical Society's (APS) Prize for outstanding research at an undergraduate school in the U.S. In addition, he was elected a Fellow of the APS in 2005. During 2005-2007, he served as national President and Past President of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) and also served four years as a director on the American Institute of Physics (AIP) Governing Board. In 2010, the Optical Society of America (OSA) recognized him with Senior Member status for outstanding professional work and service in optics and photonics. Peterson recently served as the Program Director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Undergraduate Education in Arlington, Va. He has written and presented numerous papers, publications and invited presentations.

Peterson is married and has three grown daughters.