APS News

Master's Program Enhances Relevance of Physics to Zimbabwe

Ed. Note: This story was written for APS News by Jordan Raddick.

Xavier Carelse
Xavier Carelse speaking in College Park and (inset) working with students in Zimbabwe. Jessica Clark/APS
"We are progressively making physics irrelevant by focusing on what physics is and what it isn't," claimed Xavier Carelse, professor of physics at the University of Zimbabwe, in a talk given at APS headquarters in February.

Carelse contrasted this general situation with the Master's of Applied Physics program that he founded at the university in 1994. His students work with industry to learn new machines and techniques, and most graduates go on to jobs with industries in Zimbabwe. "What we're trying to do is to make physics relevant to our country," Carelse said.

Carelse grew up in South Africa. He has worked in eight different countries, and has been at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare for twenty years. Last September, Carelse gave a presentation at an international conference on physics and economic development in Durban, South Africa. There, he met Roman Czujko, Director of the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics (AIP). When Czujko heard that Carelse was coming to Washington, he invited him speak at the American Center for Physics, the common home of APS and AIP, in College Park, MD. "His talk and the slides that he used put a face on physics in Zimbabwe," Czujko said.

In his talk, Carelse explained that his university is currently experiencing the same decline in physics enrollment that many western universities have experienced. He attributes the decline to an excessive focus by professors on defining 'pure' physics and steering students away from jobs in government or industry.

To solve this problem, Carelse founded his two-year master's of applied physics program. In the first year, students take classes and pick one of four areas of concentration. One course involves practice in a workshop that Carelse built for the students. Students make devices in the workshop; by the end of the course, all must be able to design and build a circuit. One student built a solar cooker - he now uses it to cook all his food, and he sells it in the countryside. "You can't train physicists to be useful in industry unless you train them to use their hands," Carelse said. One of his PhD students turned a broken electron microscope into a plasma focus machine, and he now uses it to conduct fusion experiments. Carlese said he knows when the machine is running because it makes a loud bang that can be heard throughout the building.

In the second year of the master's program, students are matched up with local companies for an internship, where they work as full-time industrial physicists. Since 1993, 30 students have graduated from the master's program. Many have gone on to other industrial jobs, both in Zimbabwe and abroad. Half of the graduates have taken teaching jobs. "To me, that is gratifying," Carelse said. "They will produce the next generation of physicists who are relevant to Zimbabwe." One recent graduate has gone to the nearby country of Malawi, where he is setting up a similar university master's program


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