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SPS Nation

The History and Role of the SPS National Council


Earl Blodgett, SPS Historian, and David Donnelly, SPS President

A recent photo of the SPS National Council, taken at the American Center for Physics in College Park, MD. Photo by Tracy Schwab.

So you’ve joined your local SPS chapter and you’re loving it. Maybe you enjoy the talks at pizza parties, the outreach events that connect physics to the larger world, or the zone meetings in your region. That’s great! But how much do you know about what goes on in SPS at the national level?

SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma are led by a team of faculty and students who serve on the SPS National Council. The council has two presidents, one for SPS and one for Sigma Pi Sigma. An executive committee composed of six individuals specified in the SPS constitution forms a smaller leadership team within the National Council.

The council has, in recent years, taken steps to increase SPS’s visibility. Members can now get a free one-year student membership in one of the 10 member societies that belong to the American Institute of Physics (AIP). SPS is also regarded as a serious organization for science policy, thanks in large part to policy statements carefully crafted by the members of the council. Those statements have spanned issues such as evolution in science classrooms, undergraduate research, and ethics in professional conduct.(1)

Another long-standing concern of the National Council for the past decade has been to increase the diversity of the physics community. This has led to the development of the Future Faces of Physics kits(2) and, most recently, the Future Faces of Physics Award.(3)

To understand the history and structure of the council, you have to look back a few decades. Prior to 1968, Sigma Pi Sigma was led by another National Council comprised of faculty who represented its 12 districts. SPS traces its origins to 1950, when AIP’s student organization plan provided for the establishment of student sections of AIP and established their structure. Much of this structure persists today in the chapter structure of SPS. To quote from the "Institute Doings" section of the January 1958 issue of Physics Today,

The broad purpose of our student section organization will be much the same as that in other fields of science and technology—where the value of the activity has been proven by experience. We aim to serve and stimulate the student, to enhance his professional pride and responsibility at the start of his career, and to recruit him as a worthy member of our professional societies, i.e., the member societies of the Institute.

In 1968 the student sections of AIP merged with Sigma Pi Sigma to form a new organization, the Society of Physics Students, with Sigma Pi Sigma being an honor society within SPS. That merged entity had one National Council with two presidents, to retain the distinctive elements of the linked organizations. The very first SPS National Council met in April 1969. Following precedent, there were 12 geographic zones. But to better reflect the student-focused nature of SPS, the new National Council was composed of both faculty representatives (zone councilors) and student representatives (associate zone councilors). In 1976 the Executive Committee was redesigned to include an associate zone councilor representative to further ensure that a significant student perspective be maintained. SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma grew rapidly in the first two decades after merger, and the number of zones increased to 18.

The National Council has taken the lead in continuing to expand the reach of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma. After a hiatus of 25 years, a Sigma Pi Sigma congress was held in Dayton, OH, in 1992, and has been followed by increasingly successful congresses every four years, including last year’s conference in Orlando.(4) The National Council, and especially its student members, have been instrumental in the successful implementation of these congresses.

Over the past 15 years, the National Council has also pushed hard to provide resources and encouragement for zone meetings, which offer even more opportunities for chapters to connect with each other. There have been more zone meetings per year in the past two years than at any time on record!(5)

And let’s not forget the SPS internship program, enthusiastically supported by the National Council. During the summer of 2001, the very first SPS intern, Mark Lentz, helped develop the first Science Outreach Catalyst Kit (SOCK). (6) Over the years, a remarkable number of SPS interns have been inspired to run for associate zone councilor, and vice versa.(7)

How do you get involved in SPS’s national activities? First and foremost, start with being active in your local chapter. Attend meetings and share your ideas about how your chapter can make an impact in your department and community. You can pursue a leadership role by becoming a chapter officer. Officers help to guide the activities of their chapters and, along with faculty advisors, act as liaisons between chapters and university departments. Each officer also serves as his or her chapter’s representative to the zone councilor and associate zone councilor.

Become a national member by paying SPS dues. If you would like to assume an even larger leadership role, run for associate zone councilor for your zone (if you’re a student) or zone councilor (if you’re a chapter advisor). If elected, you will have the opportunity to serve on the National Council. Most who have served on the council have found it to be a very rewarding experience that provides opportunities for personal and professional growth. //

Further Reading

  1. A full listing of the statements and endorsements issued by the National Council can be accessed at www.spsnational.org/governance/statements/index.htm.
  2. For details about the Future Faces of Physics kits, see www.spsnational.org/programs/futurefaces/future_faces_kit.htm.
  3. Plan your chapter project now! Details at www.spsnational.org/programs/awards/futurefaces.htm.
  4. A short history of all the modern Sigma Pi Sigma congresses is available at www.sigmapisigma.org/congress/index.htm.
  5. If your chapter has never attended a zone meeting, you are missing out on a great opportunity! www.spsnational.org/meetings/zones/index.htm has a calendar of zone meetings and a host of resources, useful if you want to host a zone meeting yourselves.
  6. The many SOCK designs over the years offer a wealth of ideas for science outreach. Though you can’t get the old SOCKs, you can download the resources that were compiled for each SOCK from www.spsnational.org/programs/socks/index.htm.
  7. For details of the SPS internship program and a listing of all the SPS interns, go to www.spsnational.org/programs/internships/.

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