Undergraduate Perspectives from the APS/AAPT Meeting

Gary White and Kendra Rand

Have you ever considered what an APS meeting looks like from an undergraduate's point of view? I find their perspectives on physics meetings refreshing, often giving me a new appreciation for such events. That's one reason why the Society of Physics Students (SPS) often enlists students to attend and report from national physics meetings, such as the recent "Apruary" meeting in Washington DC held February 13–17, 2010.

Following are excerpts from four student articles and from one of our SPS advisors who attended the meeting. To read the stories in their entirety, and to see other reports and highlights from the meeting, visit the webpage.

Particle Physics, Climate Change, and Dinner with Vera Rubin by Leigha Dickens, University of North Carolina at Asheville

Former SPS intern Mary Mills (left) and SPS reporter Leigha Dickens (center) enjoy dinner with Vera Rubin at the APS/AAPT Joint Meeting. At the meeting, Vera Rubin was inducted into Sigma Pi Sigma, the Physics Honors Society, as an honorary member.
Photo by Luke Heselden.

Former SPS intern Mary Mills (left) and SPS reporter Leigha Dickens (center) enjoy dinner with Vera Rubin at the APS/AAPT Joint Meeting. At the meeting, Vera Rubin was inducted into Sigma Pi Sigma, the Physics Honors Society, as an honorary member.

For students like me, the opportunities to meet and mingle with the larger physics community were priceless. Sunday afternoon, after a quick trip to the National Zoo to see the famous pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, I hit the presentation room to see what my peers were doing. I was very impressed with the quality of undergraduate students have our hands in all kinds of groundbreaking work: developing better methods to manufacture super capacitors, examining the electrical properties of impurities in a two-dimensional crystal called graphene, working with quantum dots and nonlinear optics, probing the physics of amorphous semiconductors, and examining particle suspension in specially designed nano-fluids.

Where Ideas Meet by Katie Foote, Providence College

In addition to attending sessions, networking with faculty, and visiting with graduate students, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ronald Thornton of Tufts University who received the 2010 Excellence in Physics Education Award. I ended up talking to him for over an hour, listening to his adventures overseas, and hearing his advice. Originally a particle physicist, Dr. Thornton emphasized how his physics background fine-tuned his ability to calculate and model. He attributes many successes, ranging from his world-renowned educational resources to his award-winning solar house designs, to the strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills that he developed studying broadly based science.

Highlights from Washington by Erin Lease, Kutztown University

The poster session and reception was a great chance to meet with students from all over the United States and the world. Meeting and talking to so many students gave me new ideas about the kinds of physics I could study and the research positions available at different universities. I had the opportunity to speak with a graduate student who is working at CERN in Switzerland. There was a very intriguing poster on sensing ground motion with triangular lasers. I also spoke with a student who utilizes two-dimensional analysis, stereo imaging, and airglow tomography for measurements of upper atmospheric phenomena, including lightning-induced transients called "sprites" and "elves". I was intrigued, having never heard a physicist talk about elves in a serious fashion.

One Neutrino's Trip to Washington DC by David Neto, Rhode Island College

Dr. Douglas Finkbeiner gave a talk on methods for the indirect observation of dark matter. Although dark matter is not visible, there are ways that it can be indirectly detected, for instance by the photons created when a dark matter particle decays. Dr. Finkbeiner outlined a process by which data from several telescopes, including the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, can be used to form a composite map. Then, one by one, known processes can be modeled and subtracted from the map. The excess left over could be the result of dark matter annihilations. A map was indeed made using this process and it did contain additional signals that may have been caused by dark matter!

Chicago State Physics goes to DC by Mel Sabella, Co-SPS Advisor, Chicago State University

Sean Gallardo from CSU presents his research during a poster session on Tuesday night.

Sean Gallardo from CSU presents his research during a poster session on Tuesday night.

In February, a group from Chicago State University (CSU) made the trip from the snow and cold of Chicago to the snow and cold of Washington DC to attend the joint meeting. Two faculty members, Edmundo Garcia and Mel Sabella, and six students from CSU attended and presented their work in SPS outreach (Erica), nuclear high-energy physics (Neli and Macario), and physics education research (Virginia, Sean, and Geraldine). Having students attend professional conferences is a crucial part of their educational background and is an integral part of the Chicago State science programs. Since so many of our science majors are involved in grant-funded research, our students have been able to travel throughout the country to present and discuss their work. Often the important role of presentation, explanation, and discussion in science is missing from academic coursework since there is rarely enough time to explicitly address these issues. Going to conferences gives our students a better sense of the social aspect of science and the importance of discourse. Support for CSU students to attend the meeting was provided by NASA and NSF (grants 0632563 and 0833251).

Looking for a little extra support for your students to attend a physics meeting?

The Society of Physics Students (SPS) offers travel support at a level of $200 for SPS chapters or individual students who report on a national physics meeting for SPS. Interested? See details.

To learn more about SPS and its affiliated honor society, Sigma Pi Sigma, go to http://www.spsnational.org. Forms to install a chapter are at http://www.spsnational.org/ governance/handbook/sps_petition_form.pdf. There is no charge to the institution to install a new chapter.

Gary White is the Director of both the Society of Physics Students and Sigma Pi Sigma, and is the Associate Director of Education at the American Institute of Physics. Kendra Rand maintains the SPS Reporter Program and helped compile this collection of excerpts.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.