2020: A Focus on Community and Inclusion
2020: A Focus on Community and Inclusion
Dr. Brad R. Conrad, SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma Director
For many of us, SPS is our first way of connecting with other physicists and exploring what it means to be part of the community. Chapter pizza lunches and outreach events at local grade schools may not seem like they’re anything extraordinary, but they are. These events set the tone and help us all experience what it means to be part of a community of physicists and astronomers. We organize complex events that could fail at any given moment by working as a team, work through very difficult problems by teaching each other, and succeed in conducting practically impossible modern physics experiments by collaborating as colleagues. These experiences help to form our physics identity and what we think it means to be a group of peers. While lots of physics is about individual understanding and effort, I would argue that most of physics is built on the idea that we succeed with each other, not in competition but in collaboration.
The Society of Physics Students was formed with that key concept in mind. While the honor society ΣΠΣ honors excellence and promotes service, SPS is open to anyone with an interest in physics. It’s intrinsically a different kind of interaction. At its core, SPS aims to bring everyone together as an inclusive community. This is a wide umbrella academically, as we know that undergraduate physics students go many different directions after graduation.1 More importantly, this is an even wider umbrella socially. Being open and inclusive of everyone with an interest in physics means having a variety of options, events, and viewpoints within a chapter.2 So, while it may not be obvious how having a Bad Physics Movie Night or an SPS-sponsored tutoring session3 improves your collective sense, the building of community happens by having something for everyone, for every stage of their undergraduate careers, and by making sure everyone is included if they want to be.
Community is about people connecting as colleagues, friends, and classmates, and these connections last a lifetime. Forming a close-knit community isn’t something that can be downloaded or bought—it’s developed over time, trials, and triumph. Small moments in the SPS lounge can change perspectives and help people feel welcome.4,5 Late-night homework sessions in the library encourage group work skills.6 Physics demo shows give students the leadership experiences they will need in future careers and graduate programs. Attending department teatimes allows students to develop needed connections to faculty as colleagues. Many professionals look back on the late nights and department cookouts as defining moments in their concept of what it means to be a part of the physics and astronomy community. To help make each department welcoming and inclusive to the next class, SPS events must continue to happen, even if they look really different this year.
For many of you, this is not a normal beginning to an average school year. It’s fair to expect a dynamic chapter environment that will make it much harder than usual, or simply impossible, to do many of the things we often do as SPS chapters and groups. Yet, as physicists and astronomers, we need to do what we always do when faced with a challenging problem: experiment, learn and adapt to move forward. We will grow with the times, and we will do it by learning from each other’s successes and bright ideas, with the help of the SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma National Council and SPS National Office. One of the main goals of the National Office and council this year is to help officers create an environment in which their chapter still does what we need it to do: build a community for everyone.
You might be asking, “What kind of events can we even do as a chapter this year?” since it might be impossible for you to meet in person. We’ve collected some great ideas from SPS leaders about activities and events that have worked for them and that you can try.7 When you do something that works for your chapter, we want to add it to the list.8 At SPS National we are also stepping up our game to make sure our members can find something that works for them. This year we are hosting a yearlong colloquium series,9 regional zone meetings,10 a virtual SPS lounge on Discord,11, and member competitions over our far-from-serious social media platforms. All these can be found at spsnational.org. Yet, it’s also important to remember that for many members, living situations will be different. In an environment where person-to-person interactions are limited or people have had to move back home, the people who most need a sense of belonging might be the least accessible or the most adversely affected. Not everyone will have access to the same resources and support networks. To achieve our mission of being welcoming and inclusive, we must ask you to also make an effort to reach out to folks who are not currently engaged, listen to fellow classmates, and make accommodations so that everyone has the opportunity to participate. By supporting each other, we help to build the community that will define how we remember our time as undergraduates.
SPS should be whatever it needs to be to help students, but I want to make sure each chapter leader and advisor knows how important it is for us to maintain what makes SPS special in these dynamic times: a strong local identity and a supportive, inclusive community. We must, as a team, make sure that we still have vibrant and active SPS chapters but realize that things will look a little different. I ask that you help your chapter and its members find ways to connect to each other, come together, and make SPS events the highlight of the year (instead of just another video call). Please make everyone feel welcome and reach out to those that might be having a challenging time. SPS/Sigma Pi Sigma is a 99-year-old organization of members, and now, more than ever, we need to support each other.
1. AIP’s Statistical Research Center, “Employment and Careers in Physics,” April 2020, https://www.aip.org/statistics/reports/employment-and-careers-physics.
2. For the advisors reading this letter, I think most of us can relate to the last point in reference to faculty meetings.
3. This is a great idea I learned about from U of Tampa and AppState.
4. SPS statement on common rooms: www.spsnational.org/about/governance/statements/sps-statement-commons-ro....
5. Phys21 Report: www.compadre.org/JTUPP/docs/J-Tupp_Supplement.pdf.
6. Focus on, Physics Bachelors: Initial Employment, AIP Statistical Research Center, April 2017: www.aip.org/sites/default/files/statistics/employment/bachinitemp-p-14.1...
8. Email us at sps [at] aip.org so we can share the idea.
Events your chapter can do virtually:
● Physics Jeopardy
● Minute Physics talks
● Science-themed pumpkin carving competition
● Standing homework group sessions
● Virtual demo shows
● SPS-hosted virtual teatime
● Invite speakers from the SPS Alumni Engagement Program