Building Community & Crossing Boundaries

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Singularities - Profiles in Physics

Building Community & Crossing Boundaries

Dr. Blane Baker Named SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor for 2015–16


Kendra Redmond, Contributing Writer

Baker (right) engages with students on campus during “Demos and Donuts on the Quad.” Photo by Amy Kontras.

The 2016 SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor Award is the most prestigious award given by SPS, bestowed annually on the basis of the leadership, student leadership development, support, and encouragement the advisor has provided to his or her chapter.

At the foot of a 10,000-foot volcano, Dr. Blane Baker’s students looked at him. “If you’ll do it, we’ll do it.” Together, the small group from William Jewell College started climbing, pushing, and motivating each other all the way to the summit.

Whether climbing a volcano in Guatemala, distributing hundreds of donuts at a campus event, or guiding students through condensed-matter experiments, Baker is always building community. “Physics is fun, accessible, exciting, and empowering,” he says. “We as a physics community need to reach out to folks everywhere in the world, across all kinds of boundaries.”

When he became the William Jewell College SPS advisor 13 years ago, Baker’s primary goal was to build community within the physics department. As their bonds deepened, the members decided they wanted to use physics to serve others locally, regionally, nationally, and even internationally.

Under Baker’s leadership, the chapter now promotes science on campus with “Demos and Donuts on the Quad” and other events. They partner with local inner-city schools, leading physics outreach events and talking about what it means to be a scientist. The chapter has hosted science camps on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, on the Texas–Mexico border, and in poor regions of Kansas City and Arkansas. In the summer of 2015, physics students and faculty members (including Baker) traveled to San Martín, Guatemala, and taught students how to build solar energy lanterns so they can study after dark. Similar projects have taken Baker and his students to Haiti and Thailand.

Blane Baker. Photo by Amy Stroth, William Jewell College.

In addition to supporting and often accompanying students on these adventures, Baker is known on campus for his engaging teaching style, the popular sports science class he designed and teaches, and his caring attitude. Students are individuals, he says, and so he treats them as individuals—asking about their interests and goals, checking in, offering extra help, sharing professional connections, and staying accessible. He is active in condensed matter and physics education research, often co-authoring scientific papers with students.

“Dr. Baker’s ability to creatively challenge students in research and in course projects forms us into real world problem solvers,” wrote one of Baker’s students in a nomination letter. “I have learned a lot from Dr. Baker, not only in terms of what it means to be a good physicist, but also what it means to be a good person,” wrote another. “I have never seen anyone better at working with a student who is struggling,” wrote one of Baker’s colleagues. “His patience and guidance bring out the best in the students.”

Whether barriers to progress are physical, academic, cultural, socioeconomic, or otherwise, Baker believes that an inclusive physics community can be a powerful force for good. “We really need to build community in the world,” he says. “Science is accessible to everyone. It impacts all of us.” //

On a recent trip to the Fang district in Thailand, Baker (back row, right) and two students from William Jewell College helped villagers construct an aquaponics system out of an existing catfish pond. Local plants placed in the floating raft draw nutrients from the water in the pond and help to filter the pond. Photo by Jeff Buscher.

Advice to SPS Advisors:

If you feel like you’re inundated and it’s difficult to carry on, just think about doing one or two things with your SPS chapter. Then, expand on those over time. The hardest part is to start.

Advice to Students:

Pursue your passions. Studying physics is a great way to develop interdisciplinary skills and interests. With a physics degree, you can do so many things in the world today.

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