Rochester professor becomes a NASA space physics ambassador
RCTC physics Professor Rod Milbrandt took part in a NASA program to learn more about heliophysics.
The stars have aligned to bring Rochester our very own ambassador to space.
Rod Milbrandt, a physics instructor at Rochester Community and Technical College, earned the title of NASA Space Physics Ambassador when he was selected and funded to be part of the Temple University and American Association of Physics Teachers group of the NASA Heliophysics Education Activation Team.
Milbrandt was among eight instructors selected to attended a workshop in San Juan, Puerto Rico, from June 28-30, 2022, focusing on how to apply ideas about complicated space phenomenon like coronal mass ejections, stellar spectra, and terrestrial magnetism into his teaching curriculum.
“They were an amazing group,” Milbrandt says.
Along with other instructors in the program from places like Texas, Montana, and Pennsylvania, Milbrandt is tasked with being an ambassador who will share this curriculum. The NASA HEAT program currently reaches 341 teachers in 23 states and seven countries, and now Milbrandt will help extend that reach.
A graduate from John Marshall High School, Milbrandt studied physics and math at Saint Olaf College earning his bachelor's degree in physics and later a degree in medical physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Ph.D.
He’s been a physics instructor at RCTC since 2002, but has also taught at Garden City Community College in Kansas and Loras College in Iowa.
“I realized I really loved teaching” he says.
During his time at RCTC, he’s helped organize physics shows that feature imploding 50-gallon drums, shattering roses, and flames dancing to music. Now, he’s found new ways to get students excited about physics.
Milbrandt says he first became interested in physics because he wanted to know how things work.
“I was interested in the question ‘Why does that happen?’ " he says. “I got a physics book from my mom, a discarded book from the library, when I was in grade school,” remembers Milbrandt. “I have to admit I was interested in astronomy, stars, planets and all that back then. I remember Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ being an influence on me when I was a kid.”
As a member of the American Association of Physics Teachers, Milbrandt learned about the training opportunity in an email earlier this May.
“They were particularly interested in two-year college physics instructors,” says Milbrandt, “I was like, that’s me,” he laughs. So he applied to be part of the program. “It all happened pretty quickly.”
Milbrandt says the motivation for the HEAT program stems in part from studies that have shown that basic principles of physics, like motion, are more engaging for students when the topic is approached through space-related content. Milbrandt says that studies across genders and countries show that an interest in space phenomenon is a common denominator.
“The idea is to generate some more interest in science, or physics in this case, by using some of this cool NASA stuff as a hook to get people interested,” he says.
At the meeting in San Juan, Milbrandt and the other instructors worked through ways to incorporate heliophysics concepts into active learning activities.
“People like me were the so-called students,” says Milbrandt. “One of the things we looked at was NASA images of the sun blowing things out into space, like a solar mass ejection.”
He says this can become a tool to teach basic principles about motion rather than using less interesting examples like carts on ramps.
Heliophysics is a term that might be unfamiliar to many, but Milbrandt says it is “physics of the sun.” It deals with the way the sun creates “space weather” or “solar storms” by emitting particles like protons, electrons and ions. The Northern Lights is a visible incarnation of heliophysics since they are caused by electrons carried by waves from the sun colliding with nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the earth’s upper atmosphere. Satellites and communications are also impacted by heliophysics.
“There is a continual concern that we need to have enough people in physics, engineering, and science for a healthy economy,” says Milbrandt.
The HEAT program’s goal is to “grab onto some exciting stuff that will get people more interested” in these fields, he says. Milbrandt will attend the Minnesota Science Teachers Association meeting in Duluth this November and the American Association of Physics national meeting in Portland, Oregon, in January to fulfill his role as a NASA “Space Physics Ambassador” and assist other instructors in learning about how heliophysics can be applied in their classrooms.
“This is the kind of thing you get into teaching for, I think,” says Milbrandt. “Something that get’s students fired up and interested. If you are a teacher, you love that stuff, so when you get an opportunity to do something like that, it’s great.”