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July/August 2020 (Volume 29, Number 7)
By Leah Poffenberger
During a typical summer, undergraduate students all over the country are busy tackling new physics projects and gaining valuable research skills through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs). But this summer is far from typical, and REU site leaders were faced with tough decisions on how to proceed with this important program.
The NSF Physics REU Leadership Group (NPRLG), an organization of physics REU site directors that works with APS to support physics REU programs, has been hard at work adapting the program to provide students with a virtual learning experience. NSF has recently awarded APS with a grant of nearly $120,000 to support NPRLG’s efforts in improving REUs—both online and on site.
“[NPRLG] is a group of REU Physics site leaders across the United States who converge to share ideas, share best practices, create a community of support to improve REU programs independently and as a whole,” says Daniel Serrano, Chair of NPRLG and Faculty Specialist at the University of Maryland. “The group itself originated through an NSF grant like this one…that was used to put together an in-person meeting of these sites and when they converged in a workshop, they said, ‘well, we need to give this a little bit more of a formal sense,’ and created NPRLG.”
The latest NSF grant will help NPRLG achieve its goals by establishing an in-person conference for REU leaders every two years; funding travel to other conferences to recruit students from underrepresented groups and REU site leaders in other disciplines; enabling more robust program evaluation. The grant will also help fund APS staff who work to support NPRGL.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, NSF also provided a grant supplement to develop online content for students who would have been attending REUs this summer.
“This year was a very important year in showing the usefulness of the NPRLG in the way that we responded to what’s happening with the pandemic,” says Serrano. “We tried to coordinate what we could to help with the process of making decisions at each site…this was complex because each university was responding differently.”
As each site was tackling questions of whether they should cancel their REUs for the summer, NPRLG helped open up channels of communication with NSF for guidance and began looking at ways that REUs could be conducted remotely. While a number of physics REU sites were forced to cancel their programs all together, Serrano estimates that about half of the sites were able to proceed with a modified online program.
“All the programs [had] mentors who are able to do some sort of theoretical computational work, or even in some cases, experimental work with students doing work at their home, obviously without fancy equipment or anything like that,” says Serrano.
To further supplement the value of these remote REU sites, NPRLG helped collect and create professional development opportunities.
“We were trying to draw from as many resources as possible to put together a compendium of online opportunities,” says Serrano. “The first thing is that APS is already running a summer webinar series, so we got in touch with them to collaborate. The second thing is that many sites already are having to adapt their own packages to their students, so we developed a survey asking sites if they were willing to record or make available whatever online activities they're doing to other students in the community.”
With help from the NSF grant, NPRLG surveyed each site to determine topics they felt weren’t covered in any existing activities, resulting in a list of ten topics, ranging from giving a poster presentation to research ethics.
NPRLG’s in-person meeting was scheduled to take place this fall, but due to coronavirus, the conference will move online. They hope to hold an in-person conference for REU site leaders next year.
For more on NPRLG, visit the Undergraduate REU program.
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik