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Faculty in Focus - Jacob Millspaw

Continuing Lecturer Jacob Millspaw joined COAS’s Department of Physics in 2009. Since then, he has been instrumental in transitioning physics courses from face-to-face to online delivery and active in his department’s outreach efforts. He is passionate about actively engaging students and the community with his field, especially in ways to change the general public perception of physics.

One unexpected hurdle Millspaw has overcome is describing to non-specialists what a physicist does. As he explains, incoming students often have incorrect assumptions about physics: “the problem is that there’s a tremendous amount of misunderstanding because all you see on TV is theoretical physicists. For example, they see the nerdy guy on Big Bang Theory, but it’s nothing like that. Physics is essentially an experimental science.” Millspaw wants everyone he meets to understand that physicists are primarily hands-on problem solvers, who “play” while at work, not theoretical scientists.

Millspaw also finds that potential students misunderstand how marketable the major is. He notes that when students are good at math and science, they’re usually directed toward engineering. Physics is often not considered as an option “because it doesn’t have a specific industry. With an engineering major, you go into the engineering industry. With a chemistry major, you go into the chemical industry. Yet physics leads to a variety of career paths—including engineering—but they also work at research and development facilities, as computer programmers, on Wall Street, or in the medical field.” The physics program concentrations at IPFW illustrate the breadth of career options its majors have: biomedical, computational, engineering, and optoelectronics concentrations. So graduates have the option of going into various fields, rather than a single industry.

To expose potential students to the experimental nature of physics, Millspaw and others in the department are involved in multiple outreach programs and special events. The department hosts two summer camps: a math and science camp (ages 11–13) and a physics camp (ages 14–16). These camps engage young people with physics through projects that use lasers and optics, hot air balloons, Lego robots, and more. In 2012, members of the department and the Society of Physics Students created a physics-focused theatrical event, entitled “Frankenstein: A Demonstrative Performance,” and are planning similar events. For Millspaw, these outreach events are important because they “educate the public on what physics is and show them that it can be fun.”

To learn more about Millspaw, his work transitioning courses for online delivery, and his research on aerogels, watch the Faculty in Focus video. For more on the physics department and its majors, contact Millspaw or the physics department.