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Careers Report

Physicists Make a Splash at Innovation and Entrepreneurship Conference

By Crystal Bailey, APS Careers Program Manager

In Washington, DC on March 24-25, VentureWell held its annual Open conference, which focused on teaching innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) in STEM fields. The two-day event included sessions and workshops focusing on promoting entrepreneurship on campus (e.g., how to unite a large university around entrepreneurship and "bust the silos"), incorporating industry partnerships into programs, teaching entrepreneurial mindset, innovating in campus makerspaces, and increasing participation and success of underrepresented innovators. VentureWell is a non-profit organization whose mission is to cultivate and foster collaborations among students, faculty, and researchers to provide opportunities to realize their potential to improve the world.

Though this conference routinely attracts educators from various STEM fields (e.g., engineering and chemistry), as well as a sizable number from non-STEM fields (e.g., business and art), this was the first year where a sizable contingent of physics educators was in attendance. Among these were collaborators in the APS PIPELINE project, funded by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation and aimed at developing and disseminating approaches to teaching physics innovation and entrepreneurship (PIE).

The conference provided a unique opportunity for physics educators to learn best practices and network with a broader community of innovation and entrepreneurship education practitioners. At a dedicated physics session, four physicists, including PIPELINE members, presented posters on the PIE projects underway at their institutions. I spoke on building interest in innovation and entrepreneurship within the physics community. Doug Arion of the Carthage College Scienceworks program described the findings of the J-TUPP report, a recent publication from the Joint Task Force on Undergraduate Physics Programs (1) that helped show how the undergraduate physics curriculum can be revised to better prepare students for a diverse set of careers. Many of the PIE implementation practices under development by the PIPELINE team and others align with the recommendations of this report.

There was also a workshop on Sunday specifically focused on PIE that was attended by about 15 physics faculty. The group discussed the main challenges to adopting PIE practices on their campuses, and identified key strategies learned at the conference to overcome those challenges. The challenges that were identified fell into four broad categories: having the time or resources to implement PIE activities, gaining high-level institutional support for doing PIE activities, learning enough about PIE to effectively teach it, and connecting with a broader community of PIE practitioners. Two of the strategies for overcoming these were including students in the design of PIE courses and creating a resource that documents all I&E activities taking place at a given institution to allow for more robust partnerships across campus.

PIE is important because the majority of physics students find employment outside of permanent faculty positions, yet there are very few experiences in the standard undergraduate program that explicitly help prepare students for these career eventualities.

Many graduates are destined for careers as entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs — scientists creating new products or processes in the context of an existing company — and could benefit greatly from having an insight into the basic values and principles that define success in those contexts.

Furthermore, most of the world’s most game-changing technologies (e.g., the transistor, the laser, medical devices, and the fiber optic cable) have originated in the minds of physicists, who are able to draw upon a deep understanding of the physical world to create new, out-of-the-box solutions which in turn lead to new technologies. Widespread incorporation of technology-focused experiential learning spaces in physics departments will leverage students’ versatility, curiosity, and creativity, and allow them to apply that deep knowledge to addressing important human needs.

As an organization that has been committed to supporting innovation and entrepreneurship education within the STEM fields for decades, VentureWell makes a great partner for this effort. Plans are underway to reach out to a larger cohort of VentureWell’s membership affiliated with physics departments, and to continue to grow this community’s presence at future Open conferences, such as the 2018 gathering in Austin, Texas.

To learn more about what’s going on with physics innovation and entrepreneurship, visit the PIE website or sign up to receive a monthly PIE newsletter. Anyone interested in participating in physics events at the 2018 Open conference should email me at bailey@aps.org.


1. The Joint Task Force on Undergraduate Programs is a project of the American Association of Physics Teachers and the American Physical Society.

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Rachel Gaal
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik