Physics Professor Brings Clarity to Complex Science
Otterbein Assistant Professor Aaron Reinhard has a deep-rooted love of physics but even he has to admit his favorite science, with its myriad formulas and computations, can be a daunting challenge for some students.
Reinhard is also convinced his enthusiasm for the subject and his creative way of teaching it can bring clarity to such a complex science. For him, it’s all about engaging students whether it’s in his cutting-edge research on ultra-cold atoms or staging classroom demonstrations to drive home important points about physics.
For example, Reinhard has had a big burly football player push against a less-than-mighty classmate -- with bathroom scales held between their hands -- to illustrate Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Don’t worry, he says, no one gets hurt.
But his classes are more than fun and games. Reinhard emphasizes the need for clarity and discipline in finding solutions to problems, noting he is a stickler for neatness in the handwritten homework he assigns and for students following all the steps in the problem-solving process.
“The concepts of physics are challenging,” says Reinhard, who joined Otterbein’s faculty two years ago, “but I think enthusiasm by a teacher can be contagious. If you’re excited about a subject, students want to understand why you’re excited.”
Otterbein is enthusiastic about Reinhard’s work, recently honoring him as the university’s New Teacher of the Year. The award is presented annually to an outstanding educator in his or her first three years at the university.
The honor came at the end of an academic year in which Reinhard played a key role outside the classroom as well as in it. Working closely with Department of Physics Chairman Dave Robertson, educational consultant Gary Maul and others at the university, he helped steer Otterbein’s new systems engineering program through the university’s approval process and position it for launch in fall 2015.
He has served as program’s interim director since January. (Maul, director of engineering at Ohio State University at Marion, has been selected to serve as systems engineering’s permanent director.)
Reinhard was a natural for helping create the new program since he had a double major – electrical engineering and physics – as an undergraduate at Valparaiso University in Indiana. His passion for physics prevailed after graduation in 2003, leading him to earn a doctorate in physics from the University of Michigan in 2008. He was a postdoctoral research associate at Pennsylvania State University for four years before accepting the Otterbein faculty appointment.
Reinhard is an atomic physicist whose research is focused on ultra-cold atoms with a particular interest in their interactions and applications to quantum information and computing. He likes that his faculty position at Otterbein allows him to blend his research with sharing his love for physics with students.
For Reinhard, exceptionally good teaching is all about being able to help students see through what he calls “all the clutter” to the most important kernel of truth in the subject at hand.
“A great teacher,” he says, “is someone who has the clarity of vision to see the fundamental core of an issue and then can communicate it to the student. It’s someone who can really see the big picture.”