Physics in the Time of Corona

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SPS Chapters on Building Community

Physics in the Time of Corona


Alexander Mikulich, SPS Member, Colorado School of Mines

SPS chapter president Josh Lewis demonstrates pressure by laying on a bed of nails while a cinder block is crushed on his chest using a sledgehammer. All photos courtesy of Colorado School of Mines SPS.The first thing we’re told as freshmen physics majors at the Colorado School of Mines is that physics is a team sport. Initially, though, this didn’t seem as apparent as it does now. The heavy mathematical focus in our chosen major usually helped us breeze through the introductory classes, but as sophomore year rolled around, we found ourselves spending late nights in our campus’s physics building. Collaboration became almost essential to our success, and the campus had the perfect place for it: the physics lounge.

The lounge consisted of a computer lab, sink, refrigerator, microwave, and plenty of couches—everything we needed to foster a community. Some of us would spend the whole day there, and many of our professors took notice. One devoted some of her lecture time to emphasizing the importance of sleep on mental health. Another secured $500 a month to provide food, and knowing that many of our students can become too busy to eat regular meals, we filled the cupboards with enough healthy snacks to keep them going. We also made sure that there were textbooks on the shelf related to the physics curriculum, as well as computer science and GRE prep.

As our classes expanded and the club welcomed new members, we made some changes to become more inclusive as a group. We amended the bylaws to include they/them pronouns, collaborated with our local Society of Women in Physics chapter to host talks about imposter syndrome, and expanded our advertising to nonphysics buildings in an attempt to recruit students from other majors. Our chapter was also active in the community, hosting weekly meetings with various guest speakers who talked about their research. We were fostering a community like never before.

Then COVID-19 hit campus. As students tested positive, classes moved online and our community drifted apart. Most of us only saw each other in our Zoom classes, and the weekly SPS meetings went on a hiatus. Over the summer, the new vice president of outreach engaged with youth centers, and we organized weekly physics demonstrations.

As the fall semester began, SPS meetings resumed, and we tried to shift our focus to raising awareness for research opportunities. We brought on our university’s research advisor to give a presentation about how to get campus funding for projects and how to join other teams as researchers. Our vice president of inreach was one of the 2020 SPS interns and invited the head of the SPS intern program to give a talk about the opportunities they offer to undergraduates. We also tried to focus on mental health and morale, setting up Kahoot sessions for our weekly meetings. Some nights we even hosted movie-viewing parties and games over Discord. This was the only time many of our students saw each other, so we did what we could to keep spirits up.

SPS still thrives in our community, and we’re doing our best with what we have. We look forward to an even stronger bond between our physicists when this is over. It has taken the combined efforts of everyone—undergraduates, graduate students, and professors—to bring us together. The past few years have brought more inclusion and diversity of thought into our club, and we know that this will grow and develop as time goes on to better foster our sense of community as a chapter.

SPS volunteer Ashley Howard conducts a thermal physics demo using pressure differentials to crush a can.

SPS chapter outreach coordinator Austin Holmes conducts an optics demo at a local youth center.

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SPS Chapters on Building Community