• Erin Flater, Associate Professor of Physics

    "I love working one-on-one with students. It’s much easier to get to know the student and guide them in figuring out exactly where they need help.”

Erin Flater

Her Return to Luther

Flater came to teach at Luther after earning her Ph.D. in engineering mechanics. She believes her graduate school work helped her prepare for her job at Luther in many ways. “I took a course on teaching at the college level and learned about active learning techniques,” she says. “I was mentored by my research advisor and other professors on how to teach effectively. I also learned how to write effectively and give quality oral presentations through mentoring by my research advisor.”

Working with Students on a Personal Level

“As a 2001 graduate of Luther, I appreciated the strong education that the liberal arts provided me,” she says. “I also enjoyed the small class sizes so I could get to know my professors and the other students.”

Flater realized that Luther would fit her well as a place to teach and mentor in a personalized and intentional way.

“I love working one-on-one with students,” she says. “It’s much easier to get to know the student and guide them in figuring out exactly where they need help.”

Flater often works one-on-one with students during the semester in informal ways, like during office hours. “What I really enjoy are the formal mentoring opportunities, like when students do an independent study or summer-long research project with me,” she says. “The time and personal interactions allow the student to learn how science is done in the real world. At the same time, I get to help the student work on reasoning skills, computer programming, critical thinking, and communication skills by working together on the project and presenting the work on campus and at national conferences.”

Her Attraction to Physics

“What I like about physics is that it reveals how the world works in mathematical forms,” she says. “I got very excited when I learned that there were concrete ways that mathematics could be applied to real life. I enjoy engineering because it shows us how to apply our understanding to the world to make structures and machines that work effectively and efficiently.”

Flater says she likes teaching physics and engineering courses because she loves the subjects. “I also enjoy helping others see the joy in those topics.”

Two Research Projects Underway

One of Flater’s research projects involves studying wear and tear at the micro- and nano-levels. This work was enabled by grants she earned from the National Science Foundation (Award #0722853 and Award #0758330). “If we can come up with good scientific models to quantify and predict how materials wear, then engineers can take that knowledge to more effectively build designs where wear occurs.”

One example of this is how the bearings in wind turbine gear boxes tend to wear out as wind turbine blades spin. “A large percentage of the failures of wind turbines occur because of worn out bearings,” she says. “If scientists and engineers could develop better bearings, wind turbines would likely last longer and need to be replaced less often.”

Another of her research projects involves trying to develop a way to implement a precise scientific technique known as contact resonance. Contact resonance is a quantitative measurement procedure developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colorado. It's performed by vibrating a sharp probe in contact with a material surface. The vibration is produced either by oscillating the surface or by oscillating the cantilever.

Tools already exist to perform this measurement but require a large financial investment. Flater hopes with her research that a similar tool can be developed at a low cost for researchers like herself at small private liberal arts colleges. “We want a more a more affordable tool to help us better understand and control the property of materials,” she says. “Through a collaboration with one of the experts in the method, we’re developing ways to implement the technique at Luther.”

Interests/Hobbies

For many years I’ve participated in a 150-mile charity ride organized by the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society called the MS150. It's fun and we raise money for MS research. I also enjoy sailing on my two-person sailboat. I'm still learning a lot, but I find it’s a lot of fun because you often get wet or even capsize. It's just part of the experience!

—Erin Flater