APS News

APS Innovation Fund Helps Bolster the International Physics Community

With Innovation Fund support, African physicists bring high-quality research to their home countries.

Published Nov 29, 2021

In 2019, APS launched a new strategic plan, and with it, the Innovation Fund to advance collaborative projects between APS members and staff that align with the Strategic Plan. Since its inception, the Innovation Fund has awarded 11 projects that support the APS mission "to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics for the benefit of humanity, promote physics, and serve the broader physics community.”

As part of that mission, the Innovation Fund has awarded projects meeting needs in a variety of areas of physics, from promoting diversity and inclusion with APS-IDEA to supporting physics departments at risk of closure with the Toolkit for Departments Under Threat. Among the successful, on-going Innovation Fund projects are initiatives aimed at reaching the physics community on an international scale, particularly in Africa and Latin America.

The US­-Africa Initiative in Electronic Structure (USAfrI), which received an award from the Innovation Fund in its first cycle in 2019, aims to strengthen the collaboration between US and African physicists. Through workshops in the field of electronic structure and also through research exchange programs, the goal of USAfrI is to enable African physicists to bring high-quality physics research to their home countries.

USAfrI was born in part out of another successful initiative to advance physics in Africa, the African School on Electronic Structure: Methods and Applications (ASESMA). ASESMA provided an opportunity for students to come for two weeks to attend lectures and build their research skills. While the school has helped a number of graduate, a component was missing: a connection to international collaborators.

“We have many people in Africa who have gone through ASESMA…and we’ve taught them a lot, but they need to do research at the highest level, and in order to do that, it takes someone collaborating with them,” says Omololu Akin-Ojo, director of ICTP-East African Center for Fundamental Research and International Councilor for APS. “This is one impact USAfrI is having: collaborating with researchers in the US in such a way as to increase the level of research we are doing in Africa.”

Renata Wenztcovitch, a professor at Columbia University who had also been involved with ASESMA, had been looking for ways to expand US support for African physicists in the area of computational materials science, when she learned about the launch of the Innovation Fund.

“At the time I was chair of the Division of Computational Physics when I learned about this auspicious opportunity,” says Wenztcovitch. “[USAfrI] seemed to converge with the mission of APS…essentially to strengthen the relationships between APS and physical societies outside of the US, so that was a very special opportunity.”

Originally, USAfri was set to kick off with two in-person workshops in 2020, one in the United States and one in Africa, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the events were postponed and moved online. The workshops were held this year—one in March, directly before March Meeting, and another in June—and drew in 75 and 103 participants, respectively.

“We went remote because of COVID and that's not ideal for lots of reasons. It is better to collaborate and meet people in person, but I think we actually pulled it off,” says Sinead Griffin, a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a project leader for USAfrI. “The bonus of that was we were able to involve a lot more people than we would have been able to otherwise…I think we probably had more than double the number that we would've been able to support in person.”

USAfrI will also hold its first in-person workshop at Columbia University in 2022, with the opportunity for students and researchers from Africa to visit US research centers following the workshop. In addition to workshops, USAfrI organizers are hoping to further bolster collaborative relationships between the US and Africa with a peer program for students and early career researchers.

“A challenge for USAfrI for the future is to find support to continue and strengthen this network that’s being developed right now,” says Wenztcovitch. “Of course, it’s important to do things in person to trigger new relationships. I think at least we should try to keep these workshops going as long as possible, and find support for these workshops, introduce new people in person. Hopefully we'll be able to continue doing workshops after the end of the innovation fund from APS.”

Another Innovation Fund project, selected during a special COVID award cycle in 2020, is seeking to improve physics education in high school physics classrooms in Latin America. Modern Physics in the Latin-American Classroom is an initiative to translate materials created by the Perimeter institute for Theoretical Physics into Spanish and train teachers in how to use them to promote student interest in physics.

Nathan Berkovits, a professor at Sao Paulo State University and Director of the ICTP South American Center for Fundamental Research, had the idea about six years ago to start translating the Perimeter Institute’s library of teaching materials. His first endeavor was to make the materials available in Portuguese for workshops held at the ICTP center.

“The Perimeter Institute has a huge outreach program with a whole library of materials to teach high school teachers to use in their classroom—they have 15 to 20 volumes on all different areas of physics, from quantum mechanics to climate change,” says Berkovits. “Six years ago, we invited their outreach director to visit the ICTP center and he gave a workshop for teachers in Brazil—in English. We then decided to translate the material into Portuguese...which are now used in workshops at the center.”

Now, with the help of the Innovation Fund, the Perimeter Institute’s materials are available to even more teachers and students in Latin America, as it has now been translated into Spanish. Berkovits hopes that these materials can be used to build a network of high school teachers who are equipped to teach high-level physics concepts and bolster the number of future physicists in Latin America.

“In Latin America, there is a huge disparity between public and private schools. Private schools are able to teach physics at the level of physics in the US, but public schools are way behind. The main goal of this network is to build up a pool of high school teachers, mostly public-school teachers, who can teach this material.” says Berkovits. “Students around the world are interested in modern physics—it’s not hard to get students interested in black holes. But most don’t know the math—they don’t have the background to understand what people are talking about. This is for them.”

Berkovits hopes to build a network of teachers across Latin America by training teachers who can then further distribute the Perimeter Institute’s materials to other teachers and their classrooms. “These materials are attractive because they’re easy to teach online and they’re attractive to the teachers because they get the attention of students,” says Berkovits.

While the COVID-19 pandemic stopped efforts to hold in-person workshops with teachers, the program has been able to reach teachers through online efforts.

“For online workshops in Portuguese, we had maybe thousands of teachers. In Spanish, we have reached in the hundreds because we just started in January,” says Berkovits. “The way the program works is we ask teachers…which activity they want to do. Each activity is based on a different modern physics topic. Each meeting has about 30 teachers involved. Teachers break out into rooms on zoom and then teachers play the role of students. The idea is that eventually the teachers will become a monitor and show other teachers how to use the material.”

While the program has been successful so far, Berkovits is keenly aware of challenges teachers face, such as strict requirements on what teachers are allowed to teach.

“The educational system in Brazil and Latin America is very bureaucratic, teachers have to teach the material that is pre-decided. That’s frustrating. They’re bored and so are their students,” says Berkovits. “But things are starting to change.”

Leah Poffenberger

Leah Poffenberger is a former staff science writer for APS.

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