SPS Symposia Showcase Undergrad Research
Happiness is: students and free food. Nearly two thousand attended an APS sponsored student luncheon Wednesday at the Centennial. (Photo courtesy of Bernie Khoury)
Buried among the plethora of technical sessions at the APS Centennial meeting were four unique symposia sponsored by the Society of Physics Students (SPS), intended to showcase undergraduate physics research. Approximately 30 papers were presented on such topics as the use of LEDs to measure Planck's constant, photoassociative spectroscopy of laser-cooled atoms, northern lights and magnetic storms, monitoring metallic compounds in rocket plumes, stability analysis of coupled chaotic oscillators, and aperture effects in optical resonators.
According to Bo Hammer, Education Manager at the American Institute of Physics (AIP), the idea behind holding undergraduate research sessions at the national meetings of AIP member societies is that these sessions significantly add to the professional development and sophistication of participating students. "The physics curriculum is pretty standard, regardless of where you go to school," he says. "The thing that distinguishes many physics programs is whether undergrads have the opportunity to do research and then participate as physicists in disseminating their results among their peers." SPS and its cadre of faculty mentors provides students with this opportunity in a nationally organized way, supplementing the traditional undergraduate experience. The AIP plans to leverage the success of the Centennial undergrad symposia into a greater presence at the meetings of other AIP member societies. A prime example of the positive impact of such experiences can be seen in the strong presence of undergraduate researchers from the physics department at Northwestern State University (NSU) in Louisiana, headed by Professor Gary White. His student, Kristen Russell, gave one of the more intriguing talks during Wednesday's focus session. She presented a mathematical connection between Fermat's principle - in which light chooses a path that minimizes the time of travel as it passes through different substances - and the often vexing "rental car problems," in which one tries to minimize the cost of fuel in a round trip between cities with varying fuel prices along the way - all while returning with a full tank of gas.
Russell also collaborated with fellow students Benjamin Williams and Holly Arabie on a new method for producing curved light paths in the laboratory using a thermal gradient instead of the usual sugar solution. The behavior of light in a mirage was then mathematically modeled using the differential form of Snell's law. Sports provided a rich arena for other NSU undergraduate researchers. Seth LeGrand focused on baseball bats and the significance of torsional modes in relation to the "sweet spot" of a bat. He experimentally calculated the spring constant for torsional modes (i.e., the twisting of a bat along its axis), and estimated typical baseball collision forces to find the resulting angle of twisting with respect to torsional modes. Although many papers have discussed the baseball bat problem, says LeGrand, there has been little or no mention of torsional modes and how they might affect the location of the sweet spot of a baseball bat. Magnus Akerstrom, explored the simple harmonic motion of a golf shaft. Watching a golf swing in slow motion, he became intrigued by the fact that the golf shaft bends forward at the moment of impact when hitting a drive. To explain why this happens, Akerstrom pictured the golf shaft's flex as a simple harmonic oscillator, then determined the shaft's spring constant and used those measurements to calculate a frequency, confirming his findings. His talk employed these parameters to understand why good golfers have this flex of the shaft.
Two papers specifically dealt with educational issues. Charles Miller and Courtney Willis of the University of Northern Colorado developed applications and activities related to Kepler's three laws of planetary motion suitable for use in elementary classrooms, helping young students to build a firm conceptual understanding of them despite their limited mathematical background.
Other student researchers sought to address practical applications. Gregory Kubicek of Creighton University reported on his efforts to determine a new standard for the radio-pharmaceutical known as fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG), used as a tracer element in PET scans. However, some dose calibrator readings used to measure the amount of radiation being injected into patients are incorrect. "With the growth in the number of PET procedures using FDG, it is vital to have accurate information concerning the exact amount of radiation used in such techniques," said Kubicek of his interest in this research. "Creating and correcting standards for radioactive diagnostics is an important step in maintaining the efficiency, integrity, and safety within the nuclear medicine community."
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