A HALO of Opportunity for Women Interested in Physics

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Interactions - SPS Chapters in Action

A HALO of Opportunity for Women Interested in Physics


Victoria Catlett, SPS President, University of Texas at Dallas, with Kendra Redmond, Editor

Image courtesy of the University of Texas at Dallas SPS chapter.In the United States, women are half of the population but only a fifth of the physicists. Hoping to increase the number of women who go into physics in a small way, last year our SPS chapter at the University of Texas at Dallas hosted a two-day virtual boot camp. Called the Physics High-School Advanced Learning Opportunity (HALO), our event included Python programming workshops, talks from professional physicists, a panel discussion of undergraduate women in physics, and informational sessions on getting involved in research and outreach.

We designed this event to provide women in our community with a physics foundation and to inspire them to study physics. Eight high school students attended—fewer than we’d anticipated, but given the outcomes, we hope to make this a recurring event.

The two days were packed with activities, including talks on condensed matter physics, machine learning, pulsar stars, and STEP UP, an American Physical Society initiative to increase the number of women in physics. We taught the attendees some Python, worked together on physics problems, and had a panel of undergraduate women from four different universities. The program featured several women physicists, demonstrating that women can and do become successful in the field. And we encouraged attendees to connect with us via LinkedIn or other platforms and stay connected throughout their careers, as we want them to feel like members of the physics community.

Women make up less than 25 percent of those earning physics bachelor’s degrees in the United States. This drops below 20 percent at the PhD level. Image by the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics. www.aip.org/statistics/undergraduate.

Here’s some of the feedback we got from attendees.

  • I loved all the discussions from the speakers and how informational they were. Not only did they offer a great general introduction to their various fields, but they discussed actual content [from their research], which I thought was super cool.
  • I got a really great glimpse into what I plan on pursuing in the future. I gained a lot of insight through all the talks, which I will definitely use to guide me as I prepare for college as well as undergrad research in physics or astronomy!
  • I learned a great variety of computer programming skills that I will be implementing in the future . . . There were so many great resources introduced to me this weekend that I will for sure be taking advantage of. All in all, I got a nice introduction to the physics world that has only heightened my desire to learn more.

A lot of preparation went into making this boot camp happen. We designed a two-part Python workshop, created an entire website for hosting program information and the application form, came up with fun physics problems, and finally—with everyone’s permission—recorded most of the sessions so that attendees could reference them in the future.

HALO had a deep impact on our SPS members. We sharpened our public speaking skills and learned how to break down scientific concepts. The men among us became more aware of the struggles faced by women in STEM, and the women learned how to better overcome some of the gender-based obstacles we face. All of us are more ready than ever to make the field more equitable. And finally, the event brought home the value of outreach. Being able to tangibly change the community in a positive way acted as powerful motivation. As a chapter, we’re planning to increase our focus on external outreach now that we’ve seen the profound impact we can have. //

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