Steve Mellema ’72Alumni and Faculty

Professor in Physics

Born and raised in the Twin Cities, I graduated from Edina High School in 1968. Before beginning my senior year there, I didn't even know what the "physics" class was, but my friends all told me to take it because, they said, "You like math, and physics uses a lot of math." My high school physics teacher that year, Mr. William Jepson, was a huge influence in my life. I still remember how empowering it felt when I first learned that one could use mathematics and physical reasoning to make accurate predictions about how systems in the world would behave. That feeling remains with me to this day.

I subsequently attended Gustavus, and graduated in 1972 with a double major in physics and mathematics. Immediately after graduation I left to join the Peace Corps in Malaysia, where I became a high school physics and chemistry teacher. All of my science teaching there was conducted in the national language, Malay. That was made possible by the superb language instruction we received during our Peace Corps training. I extended my service there twice, spending four full years as a volunteer teacher, and then two more years as a teacher trainer, providing technical training for the next two batches of incoming Peace Corps science teachers. The years I spent in Malaysia have given me both a lasting interest in other cultures (and those of Asia in particular) and the firsthand knowledge that international understanding and cooperation can best be fostered one-on-one, at a personal level, as is done in the Peace Corps.

Returning to the USA in 1978, I joined the graduate program in physics at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and got involved in experimental neutron scattering measurements as well as using the first generation of supercomputers to carry out microscopic optical model calculations of nuclear scattering processes. I received my Ph.D. in physics from Ohio University in 1983, but stayed on for another year as a half-time physics instructor and a half-time post-doctoral research associate.

In 1984 I took a job as a post-doctoral research associate with the experimental nuclear physics group at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. In my two years there I worked on experiments in radiative capture using polarized beams. The common thread from my doctoral and post-doctoral research which I most loved was the fact that, at each of these small nuclear physics laboratories, I was completely in charge of the experimental setup and data analysis. I ran and configured everything from the ion source through the accelerators and beam lines to the targets, detectors and subsequent electronics. The challenge of maintaining such a complex system throughout an experiment was one of the most enjoyable experiences I have ever had.

In 1986 I came back to my alma mater to join the physics faculty, and in the years since then have taught almost every course in our physics curriculum, courses on the history and philosophy of science, and courses on Asian cultures - including four study-abroad courses to Malaysia. For more than 30 years, I have worked with my department colleagues to build one of the largest, strongest physics programs at a liberal arts college.

I have also been privileged to receive fellowships for two Fulbright Professorships at the School of Physics of Universiti Sains Malaysia (in 2003 and 2017), during which I have tried to bring to my former Peace Corps country advances from Physics Education Research in the USA.

I remain passionate about physics and about education in the liberal arts tradition. I have one of the best jobs in the world - working alongside brilliant, dedicated colleagues across the College to teach smart, hard-working students about the workings of the Universe.


B.A. Gustavus Adolphus College, 1972; Ph.D. Ohio University, 1983

Areas of Expertise

Experimental Nuclear Physics and Islam

Courses Taught

Synonym Title Times Taught Terms Taught
PHY-102 Astronomy Lab 18 2015/SP, 2013/SP, 2012/SP, 2011/SP, 2009/SP, 2008/SP, 2007/SP, 2006/SP, and 2005/SP
PHY-390 Quantum Mechanics 11 2022/FA, 2021/FA, 2020/FA, 2019/FA, 2018/FA, 2017/FA, 2013/FA, 2012/FA, 2011/FA, 2005/FA, and 2004/FA
PHY-196 Cosmic Universe Lab 11 2020/FA, 2017/FA, 2016/FA, 2015/FA, 2014/FA, 2013/FA, 2012/FA, and 2011/FA
PHY-102 Astronomy, Cosmology, and Astrophysics 10 2015/SP, 2013/SP, 2012/SP, 2011/SP, 2009/SP, 2008/SP, 2007/SP, 2006/SP, 2005/SP, and 1999/SP
PHY-370 Advanced Math Methods 9 2023/SP, 2021/SP, 2020/SP, 2019/SP, 2018/SP, 2008/SP, 2006/SP, 2005/SP, and 2004/SP
PHY-221 Classical Physics II Lab 9 2004/SP, 2002/SP, 2001/SP, 2000/SP, and 1999/SP
PHY-271 Electronics and Instrumentation Lab 8 2023/SP, 2021/SP, 2016/SP, 2015/SP, 2013/SP, 2012/SP, 2011/SP, and 2009/SP
CUR-260 Natural World 7 2016/FA, 2013/FA, 2012/FA, 2011/FA, 2010/FA, 2006/FA, and 2003/FA
PHY-305 Experimental Modern Physics 6 2022/FA, 2021/FA, 2010/FA, 2005/FA, 2004/FA, and 2003/FA
PHY-305 Experimental Modern Physics Lab 6 2022/FA, 2021/FA, 2010/FA, 2005/FA, 2004/FA, and 2003/FA
PHY-225 Quantum Universe 5 2023/SP, 2022/SP, 2021/SP, 2020/SP, and 2019/SP
PHY-195 Cosmic Universe 5 2020/FA, 2017/FA, 2016/FA, 2015/FA, and 2014/FA
PHY-201 Classical Physics I Lab 5 2008/FA, 2007/FA, and 2006/FA
PHY-220 Classical Physics II 5 2004/SP, 2002/SP, 2001/SP, 2000/SP, and 1999/SP
PHY-320 Astrophysics Lab 3 2022/SP and 2018/SP
PHY-206 Mechanical Univ Lab 3 2019/SP, 2016/SP, and 2015/SP
PHY-270 Electronics and Instrumentation 3 2013/SP, 2012/SP, and 2011/SP
PHY-200 Classical Physics I 3 2008/FA, 2007/FA, and 2006/FA
PHY-210 Fortran and C++ 3 2008/JN, 2006/JN, and 2000/JN
PHY-300 Mechanics 3 2001/FA, 2000/FA, and 1999/FA
CUR-360 Natural World 3 2001/FA, 2000/FA, and 1999/FA
PHY-171 General Physics II Lab 2 2022/SP
PHY-320 Astrophysics 2 2022/SP and 2018/SP
PHY-121 General Physics I Lab 2 2019/FA
FTS-100 FTS:Think Scientist 2 2019/FA and 2018/FA
MUS-170 GSO-Malaysia/Singapore 1 2020/JN
PHY-350 Electromagnetic Theory 1 2016/SP
IDS-252 Malaysia Religious Exp 1 2014/SP
IDS-253 Tropical Ecology 1 2014/SP
IDS-250 Bahasa Malaysia I 1 2014/SP
IDS-251 Malaysia Experience 1 2014/SP
PHY-101 Physical World for Elementary Education Majors 1 2010/JN
NDL-107 Chinese Film Studies 1 2009/JN
PHY-144 Special Topic: Superstring/M-Theory 1 2007/SP
NDL-134 Malaysia Culture 1 2004/JN
PHY-330 Nuclear Physics 1 2001/JN
PHY-399 Senior Seminar 1 1999/FA
Courses prior to Spring semester 1999 are not displayed.