Zoning In

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In The Zone - Regional SPS Highlights

Zoning In

Zone meetings bring us together and build our community. They're also a lot of fun.

Across the country, SPSers have been traveling to other schools, other cities, even other states. The occasion? Zone meetings! Hosted by individual chapters, these events feature talks by renowned scientists, research and outreach presentations by undergraduates, and other activities that bring us together and build our community. They're also a lot of fun.

Zone 8 @ the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Attendees at the Zone 8 Meeting pause for a snapshot. Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign SPS chapter.

Costumes at the Halloween-themed meeting included vampires, Schrˆdinger cats, and the Voyager 2 spacecraft. SPS advisor and experimentalist Mark Neubauer even dressed up as the theoretical character Green Lantern. We staged a Fermi Problem Challenge that asked groups to answer order-of-magnitude questions made popular by Enrico Fermi, such as “How many humans worth of blood would be needed to feed all the inhabitants of Transylvania for the entire day of Halloween?” (answer:106), and “How many seconds could you survive buried alive in an average-sized coffin?” (answer:104).

Speakers included Nobel laureate Anthony Leggett, who talked about how during World War II he convinced a British draft board that he would make a better physicist than soldier; he went on to formulate a theory explaining that atoms in a superfluid form pairs, like the pairs electrons form in superconductive materials. Alfred Hübler, a professor who investigates nonlinear dynamics in physics, demonstrated the unusual behavior of ball bearings in corn syrup exposed to an electrical potential. Professor Aida El-Khadra talked about quantum chromodynamics, the theory that explains the strong force, and her work that quantizes space-time onto a lattice which can then be simulated by a computer in a more straightforward manner.

Zone 12 @ William Jewell College

Attendees at the Zone 12 Meeting interview each other about their experiences. Photo courtesy of William Jewell College SPS chapter.

In addition to research presentations by students, talks by faculty, and a visit from SPS Director Sean Bentley, the zone 12 meeting featured a workshop that introduced the methods of design thinking and applied them to reinventing the way that physics is taught in higher education. We interviewed each other about why we chose to study physics and our experiences inside and outside of physics. The results were used to construct a T-shaped diagram that represented both the breadth and depth of physics majors. This led to a key conclusion about empathy: improving physics education necessitates an understanding of the people we are trying to serve. We also talked about challenges and difficulties in STEM education generally and in our experiences as physics students, using Post-it notes on the walls to document thoughts. Participants brainstormed freely about creative ways to solve the problems identified by their peers, after which we unpacked the solutions and thought about their potential impacts, as well as the assumptions that were made about each problem or solution. 

Zone 9 @ Marquette University

A still shot from a YouTube video shows Destin demonstrating the physics of curling. Photo courtesy of Marquette University SPS chapter.

The annual zone 9 meeting was held in conjunction with the Wisconsin Association of Physics Teachers (WAPT) meeting. Students, faculty, teachers, and WAPT attendees all gave talks. One of the highlights was a talk by Destin from the Smarter Every Day YouTube channel. He works as an aerospace engineer for the US Army’s missile division. His popular YouTube channel looks at the science behind everyday things such as a falling cat, a helicopter, or the sport curling. He performed a demonstration of Prince Rupert’s drops, created by dripping molten glass into cold water, and showed clips of his online videos.

Another highlight was when Father George Coyne, former head of the Vatican Observatory, gave a talk entitled “The Dance of the Fertile Universe: Change and Destiny Embrace.” He discussed his time at the observatory, the quest for understanding the origins of the universe, and the relationship between theology and the physical sciences.

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In The Zone - Regional SPS Highlights