Surrounded by state-of-the-art equipment, general physics students are trying to solve a problem. They are scattered in groups, working together to understand sound waves or momentum or vectors.
The three-hour labs test their knowledge and teamwork skills—and Viktor Martisovits, associate professor of physics, eagerly strolls around the lab answering questions and challenging student assumptions. All the students are working toward a common goal—find a solution—and Martisovits feeds off their teamwork. It was, after all, how he was taught to learn.
Getting an Education
It all started in the former Czechoslovakia—Martisovits attended middle and high schools designed to suit students interested in mathematics and science in what is now Slovakia. The early classroom is where he built the foundation for his life and career, and his current students are benefiting from his experiences.
“I was quite fortunate to be able to go to a really good middle school and high school,” Martisovits remembers. “My classmates were students who were also interested in math and sciences. I often had to work with my peers and that experience is something I use extensively as one of my teaching techniques.”
Martisovits continued his education, studying at Comenius University for five years, earning a degree equivalent to a master’s degree. At the time, Martisovits was unable to double major—he had to pick between physics and math. Although he always felt an affinity for math, he rooted his career in physics.
“I would have double majored, if I could have,” he says. “In fact, our students have great success at Central College with two majors, but I didn’t have that choice. So I decided on physics because in physics you certainly do physics, but the language of physics is mathematics.”
After completing his degree, Martisovits came to the United States to study at Ohio State University where he earned his doctorate in condensed matter physics researching superconductivity. He later spent two years researching at the University of California, Davis before applying to Central for a teaching position.
He decided it was time to look for jobs while finishing his research in California, and found Central was hiring in 1999. Although small town life was foreign to Martisovits, a safe place to bring his family was appealing.
Visiting campus and Pella for the first time was unusual to him—everyone was friendly to him and his family, wife Daniela and children, Jakub, 21, and Lucia, 16.
“I was quite impressed with Central when I came to visit,” he says. “The small community was something I had never experienced before, and of course, people are very nice.”
But the most shocking part came when he took a check to the bank. In a trusting community, Martisovits was unaccustomed to lack of security or unlocked cars and homes.
“When I would go to the bank in California to cash a check, you needed to have an account, and they would ask for two IDs. They even started fingerprinting people!” he recalls. “When I cashed a check in Pella for the first time, I was expecting the same thing, but to my shock, I didn’t need to have an account or an ID. It completely surprised me that people leave cars unlocked, but I learned that Pella is a really great community.”
Thanks to his extensive math and science background, Martisovits uses his early lessons in his classroom. He fuels healthy competitions with group work. Although Martisovits knows not everyone prefers groups, he says it’s a useful skill for a career.
“Employers want people who have the ability to work effectively in teams,” he explains. “And team-working skills do need to be practiced.”
And he understands different student needs—students with no physics background often take general physics. It’s a balancing act to make sure more experienced students are engaged while others don’t fall behind. He often works one-on- one with those struggling with specific concepts outside of class. He makes every effort to ensure their success.
And for the students that are further ahead, Martisovits like to challenge them with “Problems for Fun.” The optional problems keep students excited and interested in the class, and allow advanced students to work on issues that won’t be discussed in-depth during class.
“The problems I assign are truly fun and challenging,” he says. “I enjoy meeting with students to discuss the problems and listen to their ideas outside of class. We often work out the problem together.”
A wide range of students take physics classes. Some are studying chemistry or biology while others are studying music and business. He takes pride in bringing in relevant examples— the physics of wind instruments for musical students and a cardiac defibrillator for future doctors.
Although there are certain topics that need to be covered like force and torque (the principle behind building bridges), student-driven topics have a way of making it onto the curriculum. He even researched the physics of the human voice after a student asked in class how it relates to physics. Even for students that aren’t science-y, it’s difficult not to enjoy a three-hour lab when they are designing simple rollercoasters, learning hands-on with car engines or having a spring-gun shooting contest.
“Labs are challenging,” Martisovits says with a laugh. “And the students take it very seriously—particularly the spring-gun shooting. They are competitive. The students really love labs because they get to work hands-on.”
Liberal Art of the 21st Century
Because of the perplexing nature of physics labs and classes, Martisovits carves out time for student questions and concerns—homework assignments are the most demanding.
“I make the assignments challenging which allow them to work through problems together,” he says. “And if they can’t get the answer or are unsure, they can come to me to discuss the issues.”
Homework isn’t the only thing that Martisovits helps students with. Because about half of all physics majors are applying to graduate school, he often is the go-to professor for graduate school applications, letters of recommendations or even suggestions for essay topics. And when his students are accepted to multiple graduate programs, they go back to Martisovits to get his input.
“Last year, we had a couple of students who were accepted into seven or eight graduate schools,” he says. “This is a big part of what the physics department does, not only working with students in class. They may or may not be in my class, but it doesn’t matter. In physics, we are small. Any student we have, they feel very comfortable going to anybody. It’s nice that we can interact with students.”
With such a high success rate at Central, physics students— and professors—are spreading the word that physics is for everyone. Martisovits wants to debunk the myth that the science is only for those with an affinity and that it is too difficult for the average person.
“I really think it is unfortunate that public opinion says physics is for the very few,” Martisovits says. “Physics might be hard for certain people, but for some other people, they might say it is easy. I think art can be difficult. Some people might not be able to do music. We all have different talents and gifts. Physics is no harder than anything else, and like everything else, it requires time and dedication.”
He encourages non-majors to take physics classes because he sees the world changing—the United States is falling behind in science and engineering compared to other countries around the world. Martisovits sees a great need for students to learn more about the physical world. It’s logical with right and wrong answers. Students need to solve complex problems. Even if a lawyer doesn’t need physics in law school, Martisovits says a student with even a small physics background will be more prepared to solve intricate issues.
At a conference for physics professionals, Martisovits discovered a phrase that he will not likely forget.
“At the conference, I heard that many other professionals were calling physics the ‘liberal art of the 21st century,’” he recalls. “Of course, many other areas are important, but it explains how useful physics can be in a vast amount of fields. It refers to the fact that a student can do so many things with a physics background and skills learned by studying physics.
“We are very proud of our students,” he says. “I really feel that getting them the education they need to be successful is what we are here for.”