Meet the Norfolk Chapter

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Meet the Norfolk Chapter

Small but substantial chapter reminds students that physics is a “big deal”


Doyle Temple, Professor of Physics and Optical Engineering and Center for Materials Research Director at Norfolk State University in Virginia

Norfolk State University (NSU) has a very small physics department, so small that the school tried to get rid of it a few years ago. As a physicist, I looked for data and did some research about the statistics of our department.

Faculty and students collaborate at the Center for Materials Research at NSU. Photo courtesy of NSU Center for Materials Research.When we were on the chopping block, I started calling other state schools in Virginia. I learned that we had graduated fewer majors in physics than most of the other schools over the last 10 years. But we had more African American physics graduates than all the other schools combined.

After convincing the administration to keep the program, I started thinking about the students in the senior-level physics class I taught. They were really good students—too good not to be a part of Sigma Pi Sigma. I realized that I had to somehow get them into the honor society before they graduated, so I decided to form a new chapter at our school.

Sigma Pi Sigma is the first honor I put on my résumé, because it’s a big deal. Being part of any honor society is a big deal, but physics is special. I think students don’t really understand what it means to be a physicist in the eyes of the rest of society. They get stuck solving their mechanics problems for class and forget that we’re understanding how the universe works. They forget that people have a lot of respect for physicists. They forget that you can do pretty much anything with a physics degree.

Starting a new chapter, especially in a small department, wasn’t easy. It was a real race to get it done, and we made mistakes along the way. One student who didn’t understand the grade-point requirement was really upset when he discovered that his friends were getting in, but he wasn’t. I regret that; we should have explained things more clearly.

Thanks to help from the National Office, though, we were able to hold our first meeting last year. As we inducted new members, I could tell that they understood what it means to be a part of Sigma Pi Sigma. One student described his induction in his application essay for graduate school. (He got in!)

Together with the Society of Physics Students, our chapter is now setting up a nice outreach demo program for local schools. The students are really excited about it. They’re coming up with their own experiments. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

We’re hoping to use the outreach as a recruiting tool. If we can convince even one or two students at a local high school to study physics at NSU, that would double our average. It may even help our department to survive.

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