Prepping for Congress (PhysCon)

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Prepping for Congress (PhysCon)

Reflections on Getting Ready for the Big Event


DJ Wagner, President, SPS National, SPS Chapter Advisor, Professor of Physics, Grove City College in Pennsylvania

Grove City College

Our chapter at the 2012 PhysCon. Photo by Glenn Marsch.

My first experience with the Sigma Pi Sigma Quadrennial Physics Congress (also known as PhysCon) was in 2004. I mistakenly believed that only Sigma Pi Sigma members could attend and that each chapter could send only a single representative. I attended with only one student from my chapter. When I arrived in Albuquerque, I found that the conference was open to anyone. Several chapters had attended en masse.

As I realized how amazing the conference was, I thought, “I am bringing a busload of students to the next one!” So I did. Twenty-five students and two other faculty members joined me at Fermilab in 2008. Thirty-three students and the same three faculty members came to Orlando in 2012. Our SPS chapter is currently making plans to fly about 30 students across the country to San Francisco next fall.

I strongly encourage everyone reading this article to do your best to attend what I think is the most awesome conference ever!

Why PhysCon is awesome

Rebecca Crema describes her research at the 2008 PhysCon at Fermilab. Photo by author.Sigma Pi Sigma Quadrennial Congresses are awesome on so many levels. The high-profile speakers are phenomenal and deliver engaging presentations tailored to undergraduate physics majors. They also interact with students one-on-one; at the 2012 Congress in Orlando, I frequently saw Freeman Dyson, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, and John Mather chatting informally with students. Recent PhysCons featured exciting tours. In 2004 I visited the site of the first nuclear bomb test with a group including Worth Seagondollar, who worked on the Manhattan Project. Wow! In 2008 we could pick a detector or lab to visit at Fermilab. At the 2012 Congress we took a bus trip through the Kennedy Space Center, with NASA employees as our guides. I’m not sure how to pick between the awesome trips planned for 2016!

Attendees also get to participate in engaging discussions and activities at workshops. At past congresses, I’ve helped shape ethics-related recommendations for Sigma Pi Sigma, discussed what should and should not be included in the teaching of science, considered what I would do (and should do) in situations where stereotyping might occur, and explored my civic responsibility as a scientist.

PhysCon is amazing. I haven’t even mentioned the breakfast with scientists, art contest, grad school expo, and poster sessions!

How to prepare for PhysCon

It is not too late for some good fundraising and advertising. Start immediately!

Our group from Grove City College poses outside Wilson Hall at the 2008 PhysCon at Fermilab. Photo courtesy of the author.In our chapter, we cobble together funds from many sources to pay for the trip to PhysCon. Our best student fundraiser is “Rent-a-Student.” SPSers volunteer to do odd jobs in exchange for a donation. (We ask $25 for ~3 hours of work.) Typically we rake leaves, but we have tutored, painted, cleaned, designed web pages, moved a piano, chopped firewood, and dug up rocks. Our patrons (faculty, friends, members of the community) appreciate our help as well as our thank-you notes.

We also partnered with a local restaurant to have “Physics Club” days. If a customer presents a card that we have distributed (by stuffing faculty and staff mailboxes on campus), the restaurant gives us a portion of that customer’s bill. Several national chains do this, so ask around in your area.

Our students approach research and internship supervisors about funding, since students present their research at the congress. One company where a student was interning made a significant donation that helped fund the trips of several students! We have also received reporter awards from the SPS National Office, and college funding. Our department contributes, as does a campus student research fund. I have heard of other chapters getting funds from student government, the college president, etc. The key is to ask, ask, ask, and ask folks who else you should ask. Finally, we have sent letters out to alumni (with the blessing and support of the alumni office) and approached the development office about possible donors. Our 2012 alumni letter prompted a response from the first president of our physics club, describing the department in 1960 and telling us how the club originated. A copy of the letter still hangs on our bulletin board.

The charity bus that carried us to and from the Orlando airport cost half the price of a commercial bus. Photo by author.Be creative in your efforts to keep costs down. Since Fermilab was driveable for us, we hired a school bus from a local church for a fraction of the cost of a charter bus. The all-night drive back wasn’t cushy, but it really kept our costs down. Group airline tickets can save money and provide flexibility. (You can change the name on tickets up until shortly before the flight.)

I’ve shared some ideas that have worked for our chapter. But every PhysCon and every SPS chapter is different, so choose and tailor approaches that work for your chapter. The 2016 Congress website has more ideas: Be creative, develop multiple funding and cost-savings sources, and start now. //

 Seth Byard, Dan Seiter, Connor Murphy, and Mercedes Mansfield) help professor Michael Coulter (on the saw) sort and prepare wood for his furnace as part of our Rent-a-Student campaign in 2015. Photo by author.


More Information

Read more about fundraising and planning for the 2016 Quadrennial Physics Congress here:

“Come to Congress,”
The SPS Observer, Summer 2015

“SPS Chapters Get Creative with Fundraising,”
Radiations, Fall 2013

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