School Ties and Dyes

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School Ties and Dyes

SPSer Helps to Found Physics Society for Women


Robyn N. Smith

Drexel University

We spent most of the afternoon getting ready. We taped down trash bags to protect the hardwood floor, gathered rubber bands, washed white t-shirts, and mixed hot water with powdered dye. Before we knew it, the third annual “Welcome Back!” tie-dye event of Drexel’s Women in Physics Society (WiPS) had begun!

Our apartment was filled with the conversations of 10 young women pursuing bachelor’s degrees in physics. Topics of discussion included which classes were hardest, which professors were amazing, and which professors were . . . well . . . less amazing. We shared our research interests and our co-op experiences with each other. Someone asked where to buy groceries, and someone else wanted to know the best restaurants in Philadelphia.

The idea for WiPS was born after several women majoring in physics attended a Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) in 2011. They wanted to form a student group similar to SPS, but with a specific focus on women. When they needed a treasurer, the final officer position required in order to be recognized as an official student organization, they contacted me. I was in.

We talked to our director of undergraduate studies and together identified retention as an issue in our department. Every department expects some students to switch majors, but our women were leaving in disproportionate numbers.

One problem was that women at different points in their degrees did not have many opportunities to get to know each other; some women felt alone in their physics classes, while the wealth of experience held by the women in upper-level classes went untapped. To bring women together, we began organizing social events such as our tie-dye party.

The author, Mary Chessey carves pumpkins at a WiPS event. Photo courtesy of Robyn Smith.We then turd our attention to outreach. WiPS often works with Drexel’s SPS chapter to supplement traditional outreach events with ones specifically designed for high school girls. Most notably, we have partnered to apply for SPS Future Faces of Physics Awards that have enabled us to build a two-year relationship with a local all-girls high school. Each year, members of WiPS and SPS set up exciting hands-on demos (such as liquid nitrogen flower smashing!) and teach five physics classes. In every class we discuss college and what it’s like to be a woman pursuing a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) career.

WiPS also takes professional development seriously. Our members have attended CUWiPs every year since 2011. Upper-level students often present their research, while first- and second-year students are exposed to careers and facets of physics they’ve never heard of before, including the importance of science policy. Members often tell me that this conference is an extremely encouraging and uplifting experience.

Since the creation of WiPS, the bond between women of all levels in our department has become much stronger. We’ve successfully increased our retention rate. Every freshman female physics major last year returned for her sophomore year in physics! But we realize we still have a long way to go in improving the culture in physics for women. I encourage you to take a look at your own department and SPS chapter and find ways to support women and other underrepresented groups that will work for your school! //

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