Welcoming “Little Sibs” to the Physics Community

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Interactions - SPS Chapters in Action

Welcoming “Little Sibs” to the Physics Community


Cait Battle-McDonald and Michaela Guzzetti, SPS Chapter Co-Presidents, and Nalini Easwar, Faculty Liaison, Smith College

The 2018–19 big sibs and little sibs at Smith College. Photo courtesy of Nalini Easwar.Since reviving the Smith College SPS chapter in 2016—a response to the increasing number of physics majors and interest in the subject from new students—members have been dedicated to fostering confidence and creating opportunities for women in the field. One way we’ve done this successfully is through the Big Sib/Little Sib program, which pairs new students—typically freshmen and sophomores—with junior or senior physics majors.

At Smith, a predominantly women’s college, we believe strongly in the importance of representation and building mentoring relationships within the scientific community, especially in physics, where representation of women has stayed at around 20% over the past two decades. Our graduating class averages eight to nine women physics majors every year—at least five times the national average at schools with a comparable number of graduates. We see ourselves in a unique position to make a difference, albeit in small numbers!

Many ideas for accomplishing this were shortlisted at a brainstorming meeting in 2016, and the Big Sib/Little Sib program was one that received enthusiastic support from students. Taking inspiration from a similar program run in Smith’s housing communities, Big Sib/Little Sib gives new students an extra resource for questions on classes, research, internships, postgraduation options and opportunities, and more.

The idea came from our first SPS president, Darby Bates, who felt that “establishing a Big Sib program would be a nice way to develop a sense of camaraderie among students of all class years, especially among students [who] don’t attend the same courses. I also thought it might help demystify the physics major and minor.”

She continues, “The physics Big Sib events were made to provide a fun, relaxed space for students to meet who share a common interest in physics while playing with some of the wonderful physics department toys or watching a physics-related movie. By creating a space where students across class years could bond in a social setting, the program adds a peer-level support system for first-year students who are considering the physics major or minor.”

In the 2018–19 academic year, a total of 18 students were involved in the program, nine as big sibs (amounting to half of the upperclassmen physics majors) and nine as little sibs. We recruited big sibs from the list of physics majors and minors in the department and little sibs from intro physics classes. Each recruit filled out a form with both academic and extracurricular interests, and siblings were paired based on their answers. By connecting students who share interests inside and outside of the classroom, we hoped to foster relationships that would go beyond the common connection of physics. Big sibs prepared small gift bags that were given anonymously to their little sibs. A few days later, we held a sibling reveal event at a trivia night sponsored by the Physics Club. As an icebreaker, big and little sibs worked as teams to answer trivia questions.

So far the program has successfully welcomed new members of the community into both the SPS chapter and the physics department. We saw numerous little sibs at events throughout the year, and we plan to continue making the program even stronger, in part by doing more educational outreach events for other groups underrepresented in physics. Increasing inclusion and equity resonates with the mission of the college, and supporting women in science is an important part of that for our chapter. 

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