The Importance of Outreach

by Tajana Schneiderman

Civic duty is considered a fundamental aspect of our society. I believe, however, that civic duty extends beyond serving one’s country and into returning energy to the communities of which an individual is a member. Because of this belief, I’ve always been a part of community service.

I first started volunteering at the wee age of six – I had just learned how to play piano, so I started to play at music recitals for retired nuns. It wasn’t much, but the smiles that my rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” elicited were enough to get me hooked. By the age of 12, I was running my own program – arts and crafts with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. When I was seventeen, I was tasked with raising money to build wells in rural Vietnam. Although none of these activities were explicitly scientific, they allowed me to build a solid foundation in leadership and a valuable skill set that allowed me to engage in the outreach that I do today.

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Doing arts and crafts in a nursing home.

My senior year of high school, I capitalized on my experiences and started devoting time and energy to STEM fields. The first of my endeavors was tutoring. My school’s chapter of the National Honor Society (NHS) nominated me to coordinate the tutoring program. Every week, I sat in my high school’s library and answered questions fellow high-schoolers had about math and science courses. I also coordinated other tutors’ schedules. Later that year, I was accepted as a leadership council member of the INTERalliance – an organization that promotes local IT talent and encourages them to stay in the Greater Cincinnati area by giving them internship opportunities and other incentives. My work with this group allowed me to give students opportunities to learn programming and other tech skills.

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Volunteering at a one-day event called TechFest. I was one of the delegates from Cincinnati to spread the INTERalliance mission to Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

When I started at The Ohio State University, I decided that being a freshman wouldn’t impact my ability to make meaningful contributions to the community. I also decided that I wanted to give back to the physics community. I was fortunate enough to go to a high school with a wonderful physics program and plenty of opportunities to get engaged in science. I was aware that not everyone had this opportunity, so I wanted to make these options available to others. Physics is awesome, and I think everyone should be able to see the beauty of it rather than the horror stories we often hear. That’s why projects like this blog are so important.  When the only representation of physics is that of an impossible class no one likes, people aren’t motivated to study it. But physics is so much more – it’s a key to understanding the world and universe around us. I believe everyone should have an opportunity to see that. Besides, with more people interested in science, the diversity of people involved increases. This is a good thing, not only so that every segment of the population is represented, but because diversity in science leads to new approaches to answering questions and novel discoveries.

I first started working with the Society of Physics Students (SPS). I asked a colleague from my internship with General Electric (GE) to bring in a few hiring managers to teach students about the possibilities available in industry. In addition to telling us about the IT Leadership Program at GE, we learned about their Global Research Center – a subdivision of GE that develops technology of the future. This subdivision seeks out PhDs for their work – something ideally suited to those wanting to pursue research without academia. Then, I started the Physics Summit – a one day recruitment event for high school students. Both of these experiences allowed me to give back in different ways. The first allowed me to help out physics majors – people that help me in classes, people that are in my lab, and people that are my friends. The second allowed me to reach out to the extended community and give them an opportunity to learn about the amazing possibilities at OSU.

This past year, I was elected to the position of Outreach Coordinator for the Society of Women in Physics (SWiP). There are several things I’d like to accomplish during the remainder of the year. I will organize a toiletry drive benefiting the YWCA. In addition, I’ll run the yearly fundraiser – in the past, funds have gone to purchase microscopes for a local school, to fund the Girls Reaching to Achieve in Sports and Physics (GRASP) summer camp for middle school girls, and to fund a Wellness and Lactation room for the physics department. I also find volunteers for events. This year, we had members volunteering at the Ohio State Fair. They helped to run a booth that put on physics-based shows and demos to get kids passionate about science. They also volunteered at GRASP. Additionally, I’m the Society of Physics Students Outreach Coordinator. This position is more focused on professionally developing our students – we’ve had a graduate school application workshop and are planning on hosting several other workshops or company visits. In January, we’ll be running demonstrations for a middle school and high school group.

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A physics show put on at the 2007 Ohio State Fair.

Both of these roles are important to me because they allow me to inform the public about science. If people are interested in the STEM fields, then they’re more likely to support any research that is done. And research needs to be supported so we can make advancements in technology that change our daily lives. If people see how much fun science (and specifically physics) can be, they’re more likely to get involved. Then we have a more diverse pool of physicists. These roles also allow me to empower existing scientists and give them opportunities to build their careers and professional selves. By creating stronger scientists, we can further science. Outreach has the capacity to inspire others and engage them in novel ways. To me, that makes it worth it.

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About Tajana Schneiderman

T_BPI am a second-year undergraduate student studying Physics at The Ohio State University. Outside of class, I serve as the Outreach Coordinator for both the Society of Physics Students and the Society of Women in Physics. I also am in my second year of experimental condensed matter research with Dr. Fengyuan Yang. In my free time, I like to read, hike, and knit. When I graduate, I hope to pursue a PhD in physics.

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5 Highlights of My Summer REU at the University of Wisconsin – Madison

by Brittney Curtis

REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) programs are a way for students to get involved in scientific research while in college. They typically take place over the summer at universities and national labs across the United States. Participants get to travel to another location to work on their REU project, and they are provided housing and a small stipend for the duration of the program. Students interested in science that do not have research opportunities at their home college (some small liberal arts colleges, for example) are especially encouraged to apply for REUs.

Last summer I stayed at Ohio State to do research in the Department of Astronomy through a program called the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP). You can read about my research experience at SURP here. This summer I traveled to the University of Wisconsin – Madison to participate in the REU program in their astronomy department, and it was a whole different experience. Here are five ways that I made the most of my summer research experience in Madison.

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The 2013 UW – Madison Astrophysics REU participants on a field trip to Yerkes Observatory. in Williams Bay, WI

1. Getting to know my fellow REU students

The people I spent the most time with over the summer were the 8 other REU students at UW – Madison. I got to know them on a professional level and a personal level. Most of us shared a working space in the undergraduate computer lab in the astronomy department, so we helped each other with programming problems and unfamiliar concepts at work every day. We were all housed on the same floor of an apartment complex near campus, so we hung out after work as well, watching movies and preparing group meals. The other students were all incredibly friendly, hard-working, and excellent researchers. Astronomy is a small field, so I’m sure our paths will cross again in the future, and I look forward to it.

2. Discovering new ideas in astronomy

My REU project was about the properties of galaxies that are thought to host extensive gas outflows and accretion, a topic that I knew almost nothing about at the start of the program. I had to do a great deal of reading and ask a lot of questions to get up to speed, but in the process I learned a lot of new ideas and methods in astronomy. In retrospect, I’m happy that I got to work on something completely unfamiliar to me, because the REU wouldn’t have been such a huge learning experience for me otherwise.

Starting on a new project also gave me the chance to consistently practice better research habits. I kept a journal of notes about my research methods, and kept track of the hours that I worked. I learned how to program in Python, which is a widely-used programming language in astronomy. All of these new ideas and skills that I learned will help me be a better student and researcher in graduate school and beyond.

3. Exploring the beautiful city of Madison, Wisconsin

Madison is a gorgeous city situated in between two big lakes, called Lake Monona and Lake Mendota. The university is on the lakefront of Mendota, where local residents swim and sail during the warm summer months.

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A view of Lake Mendota at dusk from the Washburn Observatory on campus.

On Friday afternoons there were public concerts at the Memorial Terrace overlooking the lake, and every Saturday morning was the Farmer’s Market at the Capital Square featuring local produce and cheeses. I tried Wisconsin cheese curds, both the fresh and the deep-fried variety, and they were delicious. I also spent a lot of time window shopping on State Street, a cute pedestrian street lined with tons of little shops and restaurants, which leads from the university to the Capital Square.

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The Memorial Terrace on a Friday afternoon.

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Walking down State Street towards the Capital Square.

One of my favorite places to hang out was a coffee shop down the street from our apartment complex called Indie Coffee. I went there on Sunday afternoons to catch up on my summer reading list and eat brunch. They had amazing waffles!

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The Red & White Waffle at Indie Coffee.

4.  Participating in public outreach

Outreach is particularly important to me as an aspiring scientist because I think it’s valuable to promote public interest in science and public understanding of science. During my summer in Madison, I had the opportunity to volunteer for a public outreach program called Universe in the Park (UitP).

UitP was created by the Department of Astronomy at UW – Madison to teach the public about astronomy. Every summer they go to state parks throughout Wisconsin (where the sky is dark) and give a short presentation about a topic in astronomy, and then they set up telescopes for the public to view astronomical objects. As a UitP volunteer I got to travel to Wildcat Mountain State Park and show campers at the park what Saturn looks like through a telescope. We could see the rings and some of the larger moons very distinctly. I also answered questions about different stars and constellations, and a few questions about my summer research project. Doing public outreach has helped me learn how to better explain scientific ideas to people that don’t have a background in science.

5. Getting to know the scientists at UW – Madison

Everyone in the Department of Astronomy at UW – Madison went out of their way to get to know us and make us feel welcome over the summer. My research mentor, Dr. Britt Lundgren, was exceptionally nice and approachable, and I loved working with her. She gave me tons of advice about my research and about my career path, and was always helpful when I ran into problems with my project. The graduate students invited us to their social events and gave us advice about preparing for graduate school, and the other professors and scientists gave us advice about research and the job outlook in astronomy. It gave me a positive outlook on the culture of the field to experience how friendly and welcoming everyone was. I’m very grateful to the Department of Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin – Madison for hosting me this summer, and for making my experience both fun and a valuable learning experience.

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About Brittney Curtis

I am in my fourth year as an undergraduate studying physics and astronomy at The Ohio State University. I grew up in the beautiful coastal mountains of Oregon but moved to the midwest for college. Outside of class, I serve as President of the Society of Physics Students and Vice President of the Astronomical Society at OSU. I also love to read science fiction in my spare time. After I graduate from Ohio State, I plan to work towards a PhD in astronomy. Feel free to contact me by leaving a comment!

Creation of the GRASP Summer Camp

by Lindsey Thaler

In the winter of 2008, I was finishing up my senior year as a physics major at OSU.  At that same time, I was the treasurer of the Society of Women in Physics (SWiP) and we were brainstorming ways to increase the number of undergraduate women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors.  The SWiP officers and I decided to meet with members of the Undergraduate Studies Office in the Department of Physics to come up with a plan to reach out to middle school age girls and introduce them to the world of physics.

Dr. Richard Hughes, who was the Vice-Chair for Undergraduate Studies at the time, suggested that we create a physics summer camp.  This was a great idea!  But, it was already March.  Would we have enough time to pull this off in time for summer?  We had to create a name, come up with an application process, design a logo, find funding, gather volunteers, create activities, and more.  Could we do this?  In addition to focusing on doing well in the remainder of my courses, wrapping up my research in high energy physics, and looking for a full time job, would I be able do this?

By the end of May we had 23 applicants, the camp schedule was finalized, a name for the camp had been decided, and t-shirts with the newly created camp logo had been ordered.  There were only a few details left to finalize and we were so excited and relieved that this was panning out to be a success.

The camp was named GRASP (Girls Reaching to Achieve in Sports and Physics).  The goal, we decided, was to offer a day camp for middle school age girls so they can come to campus and learn the physics behind every day activities, like sports.  By tying physics back to everyday life activities, the campers would be able to relate to the concepts better and therefore be more interested in learning them.  The activities we chose included the physics of basketball, ice skating, kick-boxing, rock wall climbing, and swimming.  Our plan was for the campers to learn about a physics concept, like the physics of basketball, from a physics faculty member each morning.  Then, in the afternoons, the campers would go play the sport they just learned about.  That way, they could feel and see the physics behind the sport as they played.  Other camp activities would include building rockets, learning about superconductivity, building catapults, making slime, and making ice cream using liquid nitrogen.

The first day of camp was on Monday June 23, 2008.  Going in to it, we had absolutely no idea how it was going to go, but by the end of day one, I knew we had created something amazing.  The campers were having so much fun learning physics!  They loved the activities, the demos, and even the lectures.  It was clear to me that the campers were paying attention to what they were learning.  For example, Dr. Brian Winer, a physics professor, taught the girls the physics of flight.  His presentation included the differences between floating and flying.  A few days later, while we were walking through campus to get to an activity, one of the campers turned to me and said, “It’s so hot outside!  I wish I could fly there.  Not float, fly!”

One of my favorite GRASP moments was in 2011.  The girls were watching a physics demo show that included making smoke rings using a smoke machine and a trashcan with a hole in the bottom.  Unfortunately one of the smoke rings hit the smoke detector and triggered the fire alarm.  Everyone had to evacuate the building and a few minutes later, several fire trucks showed up.  Initially I felt bad that the demo show had been cut short, but I quickly noticed that the girls were super excited about the whole incident.

GRASP campers after the fire alarm went off and the fire trucks showed up

GRASP campers after the fire alarm went off and the fire trucks showed up

We are now preparing for the 6th annual GRASP Summer Camp (scheduled for June 2013) and the number of applicants has risen from 23 in 2008 to over 100 in 2012.  Other activities we’ve included in GRASP since 2008 include the physics of football, archery, gymnastics, and biking.  We’ve also taken field trips to the Air Force Museum and to COSI (Center of Science and Industry in Columbus).  Robin Patterson and I are the co-directors of GRASP and we are very thankful for the ongoing support from the Department of Physics faculty, staff, post-docs, graduate students, and undergraduate students.  I wish I could thank everyone by name in this article.

GRASP Acknowledgements

The first year of the GRASP summer camp would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of the 2007-2008 SWiP group, including Katie Malone and Jessica Hanzlik, and physics faculty and staff including Dr. James Beatty, Dr. Richard Hughes, Dr. Nandini Trivedi, Dr. Lou DiMauro, Dr. Brian Winer, Dr. Linn Van Woerkom, Robin Patterson, Harold Whitt, and John Langkals.

Additional information about GRASP, including a link to the 2013 application, can be found at

www.physics.ohio-state.edu/undergrad/GRASP

2011 GRASP campers building battery powered cars

2011 GRASP campers building battery powered cars

2012 GRASP campers spelling “GRASP”

2012 GRASP campers spelling “GRASP”

Participants and volunteers of the 1st GRASP Summer Camp, June 2008.

Participants and volunteers of the 1st GRASP Summer Camp, June 2008.

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About Lindsey Thaler

bio picLindsey Thaler is a graduate of the OSU undergraduate physics program and is currently the Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Physics.  She lives in Columbus with her husband, Aaron, who is an engineer and her cat, Ollie.  In her free time, she enjoys photography and refinishing furniture.