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SPS Chapter Rises from the Grave
An interview with Jorge Palos-Chavez of the University of Texas at San Antonio
Why did you decide to found an SPS chapter at the University of Texas at San Antonio?
Originally it was just me and couple of friends. We were all physics majors who liked to get together and talk about physics. We didn't know where to find other people who were interested in the deeper stuff. Physics didn't seem to have a strong presence at our university. We want to create more of a community feeling in the department, so we decided to found a club where people could come and talk. A young postdoc who would talk to undergraduates a lot and was always there for the students was willing to be our patron. She has been serving as our faculty advisor for the last three years now.
When we decided to form the club, we had to register the organization on campus. That was when we discovered that the school used to have a Society of Physics Students chapter. We didn't know about it because it had gone into disarray years ago. The school still had the old constitution. We basically reworked that constitution and reinvigorated the SPS chapter into its current state.
What challenges did your chapter face in the early days?
The hardest thing was just getting started in the first place. For about a year and a half, the chapter didn't seem to grow. Trying to get physics students in one place was like herding cats. No one seemed to be interested.
Then we had an idea: Let's do demonstrations around campus, do cool things that people would really stop and think about while we taught them a little physics. We were only a small group, about 15 members, and we only had so many resources to work with, a little money the physics department handed us for certain activities or for food for the meetings.
One of the smartest things we did to get our image out on campus was to do fund-raisers. We started by making ice cream using liquid nitrogen. People got really excited about that, so we could get people interested in physics while making a little money. Soon we were known as the club that makes liquid nitrogen ice cream.
How did the growth of the club lead to new opportunities?
One we got enough people, we started helping out with small events. We worked with a nanotechnology group on campus, leading high school students around and showing them demonstrations. Some of us volunteered to be judges at middle school science fairs. We were trying to get the community excited about science.
Last year we went to a public library and built a makeshift space shuttle. Kids could come in and sit down. There was an iPad with real footage of a rocket blasting off. We explained the physics going on and talked about stars and solar system stuff.
It wasn't until the point that we got 30 or more members that we could do things like that.
How did your chapter become connected to the national society?
We thought it would be cool to form an honor society. Then we found out that SPS already had one, called Sigma Pi Sigma. That was when we started learning more about the national society. We discovered that it provided access to journals and the opportunity to learn more about what else is going on in the nation: what conferences and what special events are happening, and what scholarships are offered for students.
One of our original core ideas was to try to provide students with funding to attend conferences. We have at least one member who has taken advantage of the SPS scholarships. Applying for more of the awards is definitely something we plan to do in the future.
What does the chapter look like today?
Now we have a pretty stable chapter. We're shifting our structure as a bunch of the seniors in leadership positions graduate, passing the club on to soon-to-be juniors who are very passionate about the chapter.
We've been trying to encourage undergraduate students to get involved in research on campus. Graduate students visit our meetings and talk about research. Close to one-third of our SPS chapter is now actively involved in undergraduate research.
Thanks to our chapter, the physics community at the university is better off now than it was a few years ago. Whenever the professors want to get a message out to the students, they come to one of our meetings. Between one-third and one-half of the 100 physics undergraduates at the university also come to each meeting. That's pretty remarkable. We have become the connection between the students and department. //
UTSA submitted a chapter report last year and won a 2012 Outstanding SPS Chapter award! To learn more about how to submit a chapter report visit www.spsnational.org/governance/chapters