Focus on physics, challenging students
Published: Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, November 27, 2012 01:11
“Nothing is difficult to those who have the will.”
Henri Jansen, Oregon State University’s chair of physics and head adviser for engineering physics and computational physics has this quote pinned to his wall, credited to a Dutch society of poets. It was on this philosophy that Jansen discovered physics as a subject, a degree and a life.
When he grew up in the Netherlands, Jansen had to pass an exam to get into college, and unlike most students, was not inspired to choose their major by the subject that came most fluidly.
“The physics section was not so clear,” Jansen said. “It was a challenge, so I wanted to know more.”
Jansen would leave the small town he was born in to study physics at the University of Groningen, where he also earned a minor in astronomy. At the time, college education in the Netherlands had a specific focus on one’s chosen subject.
“Once you were in university, the only thing you’d do is physics,” Jansen said.
Jansen explored several facets of physics, from theoretical physics to nuclear physics, before earning a Ph.D. in the University of Groningen’s Institute of Solid State Physics, a decision influenced by traveling and observing work in the field.
Jansen ultimately gravitated toward computer-intensive work.
“First I went into a more theoretical field, but then I realized I was very interested in using computers,” Jansen said.
Science on computers was different in the 1970s than what we know now.
“I’m from the age of punchcards,” Jansen said. “You handed in a box with your punchcards, they would read them, and an hour later, they handed them back with your mistakes.”
Classes in Groningen were pointedly exam-focused, with less support for students through the rest of the year. Though school in the Netherlands has changed to a more familiar model since then. According to Jansen, he never had advisors.
Topics were given for classes each year, and students were only expected to attend and prepare for the exams, with lectures being optional. The result was a less competitive and more collaborative atmosphere among students as they studied for success more independently.
“You’d find a group of people you were comfortable with, and you worked toward the same goal,” Jansen said.
Jansen first moved to the United States for post doctoral work at Northwestern University before moving to OSU as an assistant professor, where he eventually assumed the position as chair of physics.
“In the beginning, we had a system where every professor had students to advise,” Jansen said of how he found his additional work as an adviser.
This did not work forever for the physics department and proved inconsistent. Ultimately, advising was condensed to the work of a few, with Jansen entrusted with engineering physics and computational physics students.
The job of a chair and adviser is busy, and forced Jansen to choose between concentrating more on research or teaching. He ultimately chose the latter.
“I’m at a university because of the students, so that was the more natural choice,” Jansen said.
This term, Jansen teaches Capstones in Physics: Classical Mechanics (PH 435), a class geared toward seniors which he described as traditional physics put to complex applications, and his students agree on the importance of the history of the methods and equations taught in the class.
“It’s more about the inherent nature of the tool and the discovery of the tool than the use of the tool,” said John Elliot, a physics major.
He described the class as being about the fundamentals of how tools work and the origins of those fundamentals as they are applicable to physics universally.
“These tools we are using allow us to take infinitely applicable systems and condense them,” Elliot said.
“Everybody takes their introductory physics class and thinks they can do classical mechanics,” said Afina Neunzert, a physics major.
Neunzert described students’ early glimpses of classical mechanics as limited by their “mechanical” nature as opposed to its elegance at the advanced level.
“I think Jansen does a really good job of teaching the class,” Neunzert said.
Andy Svesko, a student in math and physics, has taken the class with Jansen and describes Jansen’s approach in a nutshell.
“He’s not going to take it easy on you, but he’ll make it fun.”
Jansen focuses on teaching his upper-level courses and also working closely with these students in advising.
“I would say, if you don’t like working with students, you shouldn’t be working at a university,” Jansen said.
Annecy Beauchemin, news reporter