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UW-River Falls Associate Professor of physics Matt Vonk goes to teach a class in digital electronics for a semester in the Dominican Republic. Here, he and student Aaron Lemmer (left) show a field programmable gate array, simply explained as a programmable chip. Debbie Griffin photo

Sounds of the Caribbean? Physics in Español

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Sounds of the Caribbean? Physics in Español
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Matt Vonk travels to the Caribbean for a semester this July, but it won't be to lie around on the beach.

A $13,000 Rotary International grant sends the UW-River Falls associate professor of physics to teach digital electronics in the Dominican Republic.


"I applied for it in the fall," said Vonk about the grant.

He learned about it through Tony Jilek, a friend and former UW-RF professor who's also a member of the River Falls Rotary.

The local club operates within district 5960, through which Vonk applied for the grant.

He turned in lots of paperwork -- reference letters about his general effectiveness as a teacher and ability to teach physics, a letter of invitation from an international university and other information.

"I had to document that I could speak Spanish," he said.

An interview soon followed. Vonk knew he was "in the running."

About three weeks ago, he received a letter giving good news. The next step is Rotary's international scholars' orientation before he's off to the south.

A five-year faculty member at UW-RF, he'll be teaching at the Pontifico Catholic University Mother and Teacher (English translation). The school sits in Santiago, situated in the northern part of the Dominican Republic.

Vonk has placed a few cold calls to friends of friends to start making the needed contacts. He grabbed three books on the country and said the more he learns, the more excited he is to go.

The tiny island, sandwiched by the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, is a neighbor to Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico and French-speaking Haiti.

The island country endured struggles, including dictatorships, throughout its rocky past. Vonk said he was impressed at how Caribbean athletes dominated last year's Olympic track-and-field events.

"The whole Caribbean is so interesting," he said.

At the university where he's going, the digital electronics class he'll teach comes under the engineering umbrella. Here, it's under the physics umbrella.

Vonk is updating his curriculum and making sure he has enough programmable chips, which he also calls field programmable gate arrays. He says they're microchips for which the hardware configuration can be changed.

He explains that FPGAs can be used to perform a single task much more efficiently than could a computer or even microprocessor. The FPGA does but one job, but it does it better, faster and cheaper than anything else.

"Certainly I'll have to translate my notes to Spanish," said Vonk.

The Pontifico university will supply him a laboratory and teaching room. He's thankful the grant will pay for most of the trip but anticipates covering some expenses.

Vonk's budgeting carefully in order to also pay the bills at home while he's gone.

He looks forward to partnering with faculty and comparing notes on what kinds of challenges they face. He'll enjoy teaching and interacting with the students.

Vonk may get to contribute in other ways, so his goal is to be open and ready to help.

"I'm not really sure what to expect," he said about some aspects of the trip.

Whatever the experience brings, the Spanish-speaking professor says he's certain that the universal principles of physics will stay the same no matter what language is used to teach them.