June 6, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 19

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    Faculty Award for Graduate Teaching: Jonathan Rosner

    Jonathan Rosner, Professor in Physics, believes that students learn best when they have direct involvement in learning and in communicating concepts to other students. "Nothing can replace the experience of learning something hands-on and then having to teach it to someone else," he said.

    For Rosner, introduction to peer instruction came in an undergraduate honors physics program at Swarthmore College, and he began incorporating the concepts in his own teaching early on, as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington.

    At Chicago, he has developed a method of teaching that requires first-year graduate students in many of his courses to complete a short independent research project, the end result of which is a 10-page paper and, at the student's initiative, a presentation to the rest of the class. Rosner then collects the results of the students' labors into a bound report that he distributes to the students at cost.

    Having students work on projects like these, Rosner said, "generally tends to be fun. It takes a little bit of work from me to put it all together, but we end up with this nice book of reports that all the students get to read. Of course, there are nonaltruistic motives as well. After 10 weeks of teaching the students, at the end of the quarter I get to learn something from them."

    One example of such a project comes from an electrodynamics course Rosner taught in spring 1991 in which one student constructed a magnetometer designed to be sensitive enough to detect solar flares by the changes in the earth's magnetic field.

    "Initial tests were discouraging," Rosner writes in a paper about his teaching that he plans to submit to the American Journal of Physics. "The instrument appeared to have three steady-state readings, flipping among them apparently at random." Then the student discovered that the signals came from a nearby elevator. Shortly after the equipment was moved to a better location, it registered a huge deflection, detecting a giant solar flare on June 4, 1991.

    "I learned, understood and enjoyed more physics in [his] classes than in any other graduate course then or since," wrote one former student in support of Rosner's nomination for the graduate teaching award. Another wrote, "In a department known for its strong teaching, Jon stands out as a singularly dedicated and talented individual." Other students cited his meticulous and thorough preparation for class, the quality and clarity of his lectures and the enthusiasm he brings to his subject.

    As an adjunct to teaching, Rosner has been involved in re-establishing an amateur (ham) radio station at Chicago, initially to communicate with Chicago researchers stationed at the National Science Foundation's South Pole Station in Antarctica.

    The ham radio station, put together and operated with sweat equity from Rosner and some of his colleagues and with help from the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division, has been used by high school students in the University's Space Explorers program to communicate with scientists at the South Pole and with other amateur-radio operators around the world. Graduate students in Rosner's classical mechanics course have also used the radio station as an integral part of an experiment using the orbits of amateur-radio satellites to determine the deviation of the earth's shape from that of a sphere.

    In his own research, Rosner is a theorist who studies the properties of elementary particles. Currently on sabbatical at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, Rosner is working on the decay of b-mesons (subatomic particles that consist of a bottom quark and an up or down anti-quark). He received his B.A. from Swarthmore in 1962 and his M.A. in 1963 and his Ph.D. in 1965, both from Princeton. He joined the Chicago faculty in 1982.

    -- Diana Steele