Ben Van Dusen

What does one of the largest three-dimensional models of the solar system, Quantum Chaos in Nanoelectronics, the iPad, teaching and disc golf have in common? Besides varying from large to very small; from complicated computer technology to simple physics; from inside to outside and to far outside our Earth, these varied interests have found a friend in Ben Van Dusen.

ben and his dad

Ben and his father, Jack Van Dusen

In Alton Baker Park on the shores of the Willamette River in Eugene, Oregon you will find one of the largest three-dimensional models (1:1 billion scale) of the solar system in America, a project started by Ben Van Dusen and his father, Jack Van Dusen, in 1994 when Ben was in fourth grade. The duo finally completed it in 1995 after replacing the original planets with ones made out of steel that were better suited for the very wet winters of the Pacific Northwest. The project spans almost 4 miles of bike trail along the river’s edge inviting pedestrians and bicyclists to imagine being on a space ship traveling from planet to planet, using their legs to travel between the asteroids and feel the exhaustion in reaching the depths of our solar system.

It is no wonder that Ben has always been fascinated with science and he credits his father with igniting that spark early in his life. Not only did Jack Van Dusen spearhead the sizeable project of scaling the solar system, Ben also recalls, “Dad gave me a blank copy of the periodic table in grade school,” which Ben filled out with the promise of $20 waiting for him after diligently recording each element’s chemical symbol, atomic number and atomic mass. Some children are asked to practice their penmanship in grade school, for Ben it was always about discovering the world around him and finding answers in science.

Ben attended the University of California at Berkley and earned his B.A. in Physics. While at Berkley he worked in both a biology lab and later in a physics lab where research focused on the Bose-Einstein Condensate. While at UC Berkley, Ben played ultimate Frisbee in his free time. His fondness for the sport would soon be devastated in a back injury that would prevent him from playing. His injury was so severe that he says, “For several years I had to stand in the back of class because it was too painful to sit. Standing or lying down were my two options.” After many years of physical therapy and lots of stretching, Ben began looking for another sport that would allow him to use his Frisbee skills, but not be as high impact. He found disc golf.


Ben teeing off in Boulder, CO

After graduation Ben packed up his bags and headed back to his hometown of Eugene, Oregon to attain his Masters of Education in Educational Leadership at the University of Oregon. Here he found two things that would lead him into his future of being both a professional disc golfer and a physics teacher.

He played in his first disc golf tournament in 2005, the Eugene Celebration, and from there he continued to play and practice. His knowledge of physics aided him in understanding how a disc flies and what behavior the disc would exhibit under specific conditions. Disc golfers often want to explain the physics of the flight of a disc golf disc, but are often inaccurate in their knowledge. Ben Van Dusen had the physical knowledge and understanding to realize that aerodynamics are much more complicated than most people can solve in their head let alone with a pen and paper or computer programs. His skill and love for the sport soon led him into a sponsorship opportunity with Rogue Brewery out of Newport, Oregon. Ben was a professional and sponsored disc golfer. His hobby had turned into another profession, but what about his teaching profession?

At South Eugene High School where Ben attended high school, he found a kindred spirit and a mentor in, John Hocken, his physics teacher. Ben says, “He was the best teacher I ever had” and “he is also why I became a physics teacher.” When Ben was about to begin looking for a job, Ben contacted Mr. Hocken to thank him for his inspiration in physics teaching. Ben found out that Mr. Hocken had retired and that South Eugene High School was looking for a physics teacher. Ben applied for the job and was hired. For five years Ben taught in the same classroom where he first decided to be a physics teacher. He says, “If I could inspire 3 students to go out and become physicists and then they do it, eventually we’ll have a world full of physicists.”

During his time as a physics teacher he applied for and was awarded the MJ Murdock Partners in Science Grant that allowed him to start working on an independent research project at the University of Oregon in the Taylor lab. During the summers he continued to work in the lab and then continue his research on his own after the grant had ended. He along with his research team created an art installment that was on exhibit in the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, Oregon. It can currently be seen in the physics lab at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) in Portland, Oregon.

In 2009 he became an Einstein Fellow with the NSF and moved to Washington, DC to work with the Office of Directorate for Engineering. He helped facilitate many projects and continued to further his own knowledge of policy, physics, and education.

He is currently enrolled at the University of Colorado, Boulder where he is working on his PhD in Physics Education Research. He is focusing on technology in the classroom and exploring some cutting edge uses of digital textbooks and iPod and iPad apps as possible learning tools in the digital age as well as digital collaboration and publication.

Ben at the Capital Building in Washington DC Ben making a sweet layout on the National Mall
Ben at the Capital Building in Washington DC Ben making a sweet layout on the National Mall during Snowpocalypse 2009 in Washington, DC

After leaving Oregon, Ben was no longer sponsored by Rogue Brewery, but he continues to disc golf. Being in Colorado gave him the opportunity to continue to work on his disc golf game, while breaking ground in physics education. He is currently working on the details of his sponsorship with Phenix Disc Sports. In the future we might see this physicist making strides in education, technology, and disc golf. Apple, do you need to sponsor a disc golfer- that is if Phenix will share?