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Evans Callis, Cory McDonald, Austin Cohen, Alexander Gloger, Jacob Torres, Michael Martins, and Devon Gerstenfield, SPS Members of the University of Alaska Fairbanks

UAF SPS treasurer Austin Cohen aligns a telescope on the Pleiades star cluster at Astropalooza 2 in February 2019. Photo courtesy of Tanya Clayton.How do you hold an outdoor community engagement event at night in subzero temperatures? By providing free hot chocolate, of course! The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Society of Physics Students is the northernmost SPS chapter in the world. Located only 140 miles from the Arctic Circle, our chapter has had to develop some unique tricks to fulfill our mission of developing professionals and engaging the public via science outreach. While some of our activities are similar to those hosted by other chapters around the world, the extremes of our location require a different approach to conducting them. For example, in December and January, Fairbanks receives an average of only 4.5 hours of daylight each day, with an average high temperature of -17 °C (1 °F).

Still, we’ve found successful ways to engage our relatively small community of Fairbanks through public outreach events. Since UAF is strong in the field of space and auroral physics—and operates the only university-owned rocket range in the world (Poker Flat Research Range)—astronomy events are a natural fit. Foremost among these is our biannual astronomy and physics demo night, Astropalooza, when UAF SPS sets up telescopes and invites the public to come and view the Andromeda galaxy, the Pleiades star cluster, and other impressive astronomical objects. Originally started in 2015, Astropalooza has proven so popular with the public that it’s now our headline event.

UAF SPS member Matthew Wilhelm demonstrates the deflection of charged particles in a magnetic field using a CRT monitor and a magnet at Astropalooza 2. Photo courtesy of Tanya Clayton.UAF SPS president Evans Callis was featured on the front page of the UAF website following Astropalooza 2 in February 2019. Photo courtesy of the UAF SPS chapter.Our community engagement also includes annual participation in the UAF College of Natural Science and Mathematics Science Potpourri, a day of science outreach for the general public. At this event, we conduct physics demonstrations and public lectures for families and students so that they can see physics applied in a hands-on manner. Our chapter was also instrumental in the construction of the UAF Planet Walk, a scale model of the solar system on campus. This permanent installation (and its associated website) allows the Fairbanks community to experience the scale of the solar system firsthand while also learning about the science used to understand it.

UAF SPS has also recently become involved in science outreach to schools outside of our community. With the majority of Alaska having no road access to the rest of the state, opportunities to attend big science events are limited. Recently we were able to send chapter member Michael Martins to Fort Yukon, a village of about 550 people who are mostly Gwich’in Alaska Natives. Located north of the Arctic Circle, the village is accessible only by air and river. Martins spent several days conducting science outreach for students ranging in age from kindergarten to grade 12. Further opportunities have arisen for similar work within other villages throughout Alaska, and we’re eager to fill this need.

In addition to physics students, we welcome those with different majors and academic backgrounds to join us at our events. UAF SPS members come from all areas of academic expertise, including engineering, chemistry, and biology. Since physics has strong connections to many fields, finding a bridge between disciplines is never a problem for our members. Everyone is welcome to UAF SPS events—we’re very proud of the diversity of our chapter!

 Adriana Camacho-Rodriguez, Austin Cohen, Evans Callis, Devon Gerstenfield, Michael Martins, Chris Peters, and Jonathan Schratter. Photo courtesty of JR Ancheta.

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