Department of Physics


Educational Instrumentation - Dr. Eric Ayars

3D Printers, laser cutters, readily-available microcontrollers... There are so many great new tools available for experimenters now! Dr. Ayars focuses on bringing these tools into the physics lab and using them to enable experiments that could not otherwise be possible. These new experiments then allow students to learn physics in new ways, using precision measurements and techniques that ---up until a few years ago--- were far too expensive to be available to the typical undergraduate program.

Example projects include such things as making 100 simultaneous precision temperature measurements on every square inch of a metal plate, levitating assorted objects, measuring the change of thickness of an aluminum sheet when it warms up by two degrees, and building chaotic oscillators. He works very closely with students on these award-winning projects ---three of his students have won national recognition (and cash) so far--- and he is always on the lookout for other interesting ideas and interested students to work with.

You can reach Dr. Ayars at for more information.

Physics Education Research - Dr. David Brookes

My research field is physics education research. My research outlook and approach to teaching are heavily influenced by the Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE), created by Etkina and Van Heuvelen.

My research follows two strands: 1. I am interested in cognitive linguistics and embodied cognition and use this general approach to understand how physics students understand language and how they understand physics equations. 2. I am interested in designing the learning environment so that physics students can teach themselves, acquire scientific abilities/scientific habits of mind, and develop positive attitudes towards physics. I am particularly interested in using concepts from complex dynamical systems when thinking about how to design learning environments.

Ultra-cold Atoms - Drs. Hyewon and Joseph Pechkis

Advancements in atomic, molecular, and optical (AMO) physics have led to innovations in precision measurements for navigation, time and frequency standards, and gravity measurements. For example, the use of atomic clocks to enable the global positioning system (GPS) has been one of the great success stories of AMO physics. Ultracold atoms have been the system of choice in such research as they are highly-controllable, many-body quantum systems, which are free from defects associated with other systems. This “tunability” provided by the use of external fields makes them well-suited as quantum simulators of condensed matter systems, as well as studies of plasmas and astrophysics. Ultracold systems are also ideal candidates for possible applications in quantum computation, information, and communication.

To create ultracold systems, atoms are cooled using lasers to micro Kelvin temperatures. For comparison, interstellar space is at a balmy 2.7 K! At these temperatures, ultracold atoms are nearly frozen in space and display their true quantum nature, behaving more like waves than particles.

At California State University, Chico, we are building an experimental ultracold atom lab to perform experiments on ultracold systems. The first phase of the lab will be constructing a Rb magneto-optical trap and the necessary external-cavity diode lasers to perform these experiments. This work is enabled, in part, through a generous donation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Working in an experimental AMO lab is a great learning experience for undergraduate students. For those planning to attend graduate school, this will be beneficial to build a strong background in research. For those who plan to go into industry, practical skills gained (e.g., electronics, optics, lasers, vacuum technology, and so on, you name it!) will prepare students well. If you are interested in joining us, please contact Dr. Hyewon Pechkis or Dr. Joseph Pechkis at and

Stellar Astrophysics - Dr. Nicholas Nelson

In the past 20 years the number of known planets in the universe has grown from 8 to 3,500 and counting. With so many exoplanets already found and many more being discovered every day, astronomers are starting to ask if any of these planets could be habitable. One of the major factors to habitability is the magnetic activity of a planet's host star. Stars like our Sun have spots, which are strong magnetic fields that are generated in the stellar interior and then rise to the stellar surface and into the stellar atmosphere. In a star's atmoshere these strong magnetic fields can become twisted and stressed until then violently release their energy and cause x-ray flares and ejections of billions of tons of ultra-hot plasma. When those x-rays and plasma hit a planet they can rip off some or, in extreme cases, almost all of that planet's atmosphere. In our own solar system Mars and Mercury likely suffered this fate.

Observations of other stars show that stellar magnetic activity varies widely with some stars having fas less than the Sun, some stars having more activity, and some stars being so active that their surfaces are almost completely convered in star spots. These magnetic fields are generated by the interplay of convection, rotation, and stratification in the deep interior of the star, but the details of exactly what controls these processes and how they change as over the lifetimes of stars remains a subject of intense scientific debate.

The stellar astrophysics group at Chico State seeks to address these questions by using supercomputers to model the generation of magnetic fields in stars through dynamo action. We use some of the largest supercomputers in the world and the basic laws of physics to try to model the turbulent magnetized convection which occurs in stars. Sound interesting? We're always looking for students to join our group. For more information contact Dr. Nicholas Nelson at