APS News

Focus on APS Sections

Prairie Section Primed for Expansion

By Brian Jacobsmeyer

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in an occasional series of columns highlighting the history and achievement of APS Sections. The first column appeared in October 2010. There are currently nine geographical sections, covering most of the United States and parts of Canada, with a tenth, in the mid-Atlantic region, in formation.
Gray arrow Prairie Section

Formed only four years ago, the Prairie Section remains the smallest–albeit fastest growing– APS section. Despite the section’s short existence, its geographical area has long been a hotbed for physics research and education, encompassing Fermilab, Argonne National Laboratory, and numerous universities ranging from top research schools to teaching-focused liberal arts colleges.
Between 2009 and 2011, section membership rose over 50 percent, and student membership more than doubled, rising from 133 to 315 members over the two year period. But the section’s leaders still see room for improvement.

Five full states formally belong to the section, namely Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri. They are joined by parts of Indiana. Four neighboring states–North and South Dakota, Kansas, and Nebraska–don’t belong to any APS section, however, and Prairie Section leaders will submit a proposal soon to add these states, said Cheng Chin, the Prairie Section Chair from the University of Chicago. If all goes according to plan, the section will nearly double its geographic reach after including these new member states.

APS members from these neighboring states have already played an active role in the blossoming Prairie Section. In fact, the section meeting this year will be held at the University of Kansas, home to the section’s Vice Chair, Stephen Sanders.

In addition to increasing membership and engagement, Chin and other leaders also plan to extend the section’s community impact. They hope to collaborate with science institutions throughout the area to increase public outreach efforts and educational opportunities, such as public tours of national labs.

“There’s a sense we should be doing more,” said Russell Betts, former section chair and current dean of the College of Science and Letters at Illinois Institute of Technology. “One of the things we have been looking at is what defines the Prairie Section.”

Part of what defines any APS section are the regular meetings, which give researchers and students a chance to showcase their science among local peers. When the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) hosted the annual section meeting last year amidst talks of shutting down the physics department, Department Head Cliff Chancy saw it as an opportunity to highlight the program’s strengths.

Although there’s a strong research community at UNI, the physics department prides itself on its dedication to undergraduate education. Consequently, Chancy made sure to emphasize UNI’s undergraduate mentoring while simplifying the meeting registration process for younger students.

“It’s about showing local variety and local strengths, and that’s what we did,” said Chancy.

Simple actions like waiving the pre-registration fee for undergraduates helped stimulate undergraduate participation at the meeting. In the future, section leaders want to distribute more travel fellowships for students and postdoctoral researchers and foster an environment that rewards outstanding student achievement. As membership increases, there will be even more opportunities to award prizes for student research at the annual meeting, said Chin.

Joint meetings with members of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) over the past few years have further reflected the section’s dedication to physics education. During the section’s first meetings, attendance was a concern, so teaming with AAPT helped popularize the annual meeting.

But meeting attendance has grown rapidly over just a few years. While the first meetings had between 30 and 40 attendees, last year’s meeting tripled these numbers to exceed 100 participants, said Chin.

At this early stage in the section’s history, increasing membership and engagement begets much more participation, and Chin remains optimistic about the section’s future.

“We’re growing, and we have a pretty ambitious plan to improve membership,” he said.

This year’s section meeting has been tentatively slated for early November.

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Editor: Alan Chodos