Starting an SPS Chapter from Scratch

Share This:



Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices

Starting an SPS Chapter from Scratch

Top Ten Tips for Building a Strong Chapter


Gary D. White, Editor, The Physics Teacher

Adjunct Professor of Physics, George Washington University in Washington D.C.

SPS Director, 2001-12

The Northwestern state university sps chapter hosts a 1999 outreach event in  Natchitoches, LA. Photo courtesy of Gary White.

How do you go from an inactive SPS chapter to a vibrant community of physics students that can play a key role in the evolution of your department? Having faced this question twice at two very different institutions, and having watched others succeed, I have some ideas. In fact, my own experiences have led me to draw a few conclusions about some things that work. David Letterman’s recent departure from The Late Show has got me in a Top Ten List mode. So, here’s the short list, followed by some elaboration:

01 - Find Out What People Want

At the departmental meet-and-greet at the beginning of the semester, we made a poster that included a variety of items arranged in a grid (movie night, GRE prep session, career workshop, science outreach at a local school, grad student panel discussion, road trip to science museum, astronomy night, liquid nitrogen ice cream welcome party, etc.). We asked the students in attendance to cast votes for their three favorite items. The officers and departmental leadership were then able to use the votes to prioritize what to plan for the year. Letting everyone know that the activities were based on the preferences of the students resulted in better ownership of the activities.

02 - Embrace a Big Tent Philosophy

In many departments, there are not enough physics majors around to imagine doing any kind of group activity, so it is important to open the doors wide at the beginning. Advertising that “Science Club” will have its first meeting next Friday to discuss bringing in an expert on medical imaging is likely to draw in more people and generate more interest than inviting the physics majors to talk about bringing in a PET scan physicist, especially if you invite all the first-year physics classes. We started with “Science Club” events, which proved to be much more inclusive, and eventually we segmented ourselves into a chemistry club and an SPS chapter that still met jointly for certain activities. In any case, it took several semesters to build up enough interest in physics-exclusive events to risk promoting them without the “Big Tent” philosophy.

03 - Plan for the Long Term

While it is important to have something in the near term to look forward to, my sense is that most chapters need to be looking forward to something big out there on the far horizon too. Attending the Sigma Pi Sigma Congress (November 2016, in California’s Silicon Valley) is an excellent example of a long-term goal that can help inspire your chapter and generate excitement; other physics association meetings can serve the same purpose, as can local science events.

04 - Start a Tradition or Two

One of the easiest ways to maintain community in your physics department is to develop some local physics traditions that everyone appreciates. “We always have a liquid nitrogen demonstration at our annual physics BBQ . . .” is the kind of statement that can inspire people to action without a lot of pleading and cajoling. Traditions bring a sense of identity that can extend far beyond the campus walls proper, helping to draw in alumni and prospective students in a way that few other things can.

05 - Get Involved with Science Outreach

Everywhere I have taught, I have found that one of the best activities for bringing people together around physics is science outreach. Few people, physicists least of all, can resist the allure of sharing the wonder of rainbow diffraction glasses and spectra with the uninitiated; exploring the weirdness of oobleck with school children; or introducing rocket science into a campus open house via roller skates, Diet Coke, and Mentos. Combine cool stuff like that with the idea that you are helping people learn or appreciate science, and usually outreach results in a win-win-win situation for the department, the presenters and the audience, with the biggest winners being the people presenting the science (because invariably, they end up learning the most).

06 - Make Your Invitations Personal

Sometimes it pays to take the time to send out 10 individual invitations rather than one mass invitation to 10 people.

07 - Leverage SPS National

Make it a point to highlight one item from SPS National at every SPS meeting—whether it be the SPS sessions at national meetings, the Marsh White or Blake Lilly Awards, the undergraduate research events, the scholarships and funding opportunities, the numerous career resources, or just the presence of that mother ship out there, hovering over us all and taking care of us. There are a lot of things to share with your chapter.

08 - Eight Letters: Road Trip!

There are few ways to build camaraderie better than traveling together to a fun physics event such as an SPS zone meeting; I recommend building this into your chapter plans once a semester. Even a short trip, say to an astronomy night or a science museum, can be a blast.

09 - Socialize, and Be Sure to Include Food

This is probably the most obvious item on the list, but it is surely important. Pizza is the staple everywhere I’ve been, but establishing your own local favorites (liquid nitrogen ice cream and strawberries is one of ours) can provide an extra dose of fun.

10 - Don't Forget the Physics

SPS members always appreciate it when the usual fare is spiced up with a side of physics, so next time you’re planning the first SPS meeting or the physics banquet or the tutoring orientation or the open house display table or the training for the science fair judges, consider adding physics to the mix, and invite your chapter members to showcase one of their favorite science demonstrations. Building community is all about giving everyone a chance to shine. //

Learn More

Find more tips for chapters, along with examples of recent chapter activities, on the SPS website at:

More from this department

Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices