Seven Roles for SPS in the Physics Community

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The Texas Lutheran University SPS chapter holds its first Family Physics Night outreach event.

Some physics departments view SPS as a strictly social entity—giving students an excuse to hang out and eat pizza. SPS can, and should, be so much more than that. And while pizza and socializing are important to an organization, SPS is a professional society that engages all students interested in physics. We’ve identified some ways (in no particular order) that SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma can make a difference in the physics community.

1. Undergraduate research as a teaching tool

Undergraduate research teaches lessons and taps skills that course work cannot. The mission of undergraduate research is not the research itself; it is the growth in self-confidence and experience for the undergraduate. The product of undergraduate research is not necessarily a publication; it is the transformation of the student from being merely a taker of courses into a contributing member of the professional community.

Through SPS Zone meetings, The Journal of Undergraduate Reports in Physics, Chapter Research Awards, and other programs and publications, SPS fosters and supports undergraduate research opportunities.

2. Physics outreach to K-12 students and the general public

Until every physicist is taking demonstrations to a local grade school at least once a year and working as colleagues with the teachers there to promote science literacy, the physics community is not doing everything possible to promote the public’s appreciation of science. There are over 700 SPS chapters in the United States and internationally. Each one of them is near several elementary and secondary schools. SPS can take the lead in physics outreach, and make a difference in these schools and students.

3. Multiple career options are open to those with a degree in physics

There is no major that guarantees the student a job. Therefore, students are well-advised to pursue a course of study that maximize their options. AIP has both anecdotal and statistical evidence that persons with a bachelor's degree in physics do well in a huge spectrum of careers - not just in the traditional track that proceeds through physics graduate school. Physics alumni are engineers, computer scientists, insurance actuaries, teachers, managers, patent lawyers, financial analysts, musicians, mathematicians, statisticians, etc. They have made careers in business, chemistry, meteorology, geology, biophysics, medicine, and many other fields. Check out the SPS Career Resources featuring profiles of physicists, professional development tips, statistics and career opportunities.

4. Recruitment and retention tool for the physics department

A student may come to a particular physics department for a pre-engineering program. But once engaged in an active SPS chapter with undergraduate research, outreach to local schools, a rotation of guest speakers and a network of like-minded peers, many students opt to stay with the department to major or minor in physics. This is especially true in light of the many career options that are open to graduates with degrees in physics. In an environment where all academic departments are under pressure to maintain high enrollments, an active SPS chapter provides a definite advantage to the physics department.

5. SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma members are the “friends of physics” throughout society

SPS exists to create a sense of community throughout the undergraduate physics world. SPS is the only institutionalized structure that the physics community has for engaging not only the student physicist, but the student friend of physics that may major in another field. Sigma Pi Sigma is the only institutionalized structure that the physics community has for engaging those many persons who have excelled in physics and then go forth into all walks of life, and pursue careers that include but are not limited to those of traditional physics.

Given the present lack of science appreciation in society, and the uncertain future of public support for basic research and science education, the SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma communities can play a large role in promoting and advocating on behalf of STEM research and support.

6. SPS as an introduction to the other professional physics societies

SPS members who join as an undergraduate may chose free membership in two of the ten AIP Member Societies. Many of these societies offer resources and benefits that will support them as they pursue professional careers.

7. Training for leadership

Twenty or thirty years from now, students who are now members of SPS and who are planning careers in traditional physics will be the leaders of physics institutions and the culture of the physics community. Students who are now members of SPS but go into other fields will similarly be leading the way in their circles of influence. The physics establishment, and the establishments of potential friends of physics, will be theirs to shape, for better or worse.

Through SPS activities, the student’s professional development, communication skills, leadership qualities, and professional networking are enhanced in ways that cannot be realized in coursework alone. SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma have unique and important roles to fulfill in the culture of physics and its related disciplines.