Running—and Dunking—for Physics

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SPS Chapters on Building Community

Running—and Dunking—for Physics


Delina Levine, SPS Chapter President, and Ronan Hix, SPS Chapter Vice President, University of Maryland, College Park


The UMD SPS chapter, hosts of the Centennial Run. Photo courtesy of the SPS office. 

On a cold April morning, a group of students, faculty, and community members gathered outside the Toll Physics Building at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD). It was the morning of the Centennial 3.14 K Run, an outreach and fundraising event hosted by our SPS chapter. However, our race included a few out-of-the-ordinary elements. If you peered in at one point, you’d have seen a group gathered around a student holding a beanbag, cheering as the student took aim at the PVC contraption that serves as the UMD physics department’s dunk tank. You’d have heard a smack rise above the cheers as the beanbag found its target and the bucket upended, sending a torrent of frigid water over the cheerfully dismayed director of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma, Brad Conrad.

The Sigma Pi Sigma Centennial Run was one of the first in-person outreach events our SPS chapter held after the pandemic. We had regularly hosted events for the public prepandemic, including science shows and interactive demo booths at festivals. The idea behind the run was to start reengaging with the local community via a short, interactive, family-friendly event that promoted exercise, connection, and the message behind all our outreach events—that physics can be fun for everyone. The run also gave us a chance to highlight SPS and the Sigma Pi Sigma honor society by celebrating its 100th birthday and raising some money for travel to the upcoming 2022 Physics Congress.

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The UMD SPS chapter, hosts of the Centennial Run. Photo courtesy of the SPS office. 

When tasked with choosing a length for the race, the planning committee naturally decided to make the route scenic and exactly 3.14 kilometers long. As participants arrived, we gave them numbers and T-shirts. Then, speakers from the UMD physics department and SPS National said a few words, and with a countdown from the 2021 SPS Outstanding Chapter Advisor, Donna Hammer—our advisor at UMD—the runners were off! 

After the run, we held a celebration complete with snacks, games, and physics demonstrations run by our chapter. We like to demonstrate important concepts in physics and astronomy, like elastic collisions and angular momentum, using household materials. In one game we balanced an embroidery hoop vertically on top of an empty bottle. Then we placed a marker on top of the hoop and had participants race to see who could be the first to knock away the hoop such that the marker fell straight into the bottle. This led to a discussion about inertia and friction. With simple demos like these, we connected physics more concretely to participants' daily lives and helped them see how interesting and fun physics can be.

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Director of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma, Brad Conrad, is successfully dunked by a participant. Photo courtesy of the SPS office. 

In the event finale, runners were selected by raffle to try their luck at dunking a target. The first victim? SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma director Brad Conrad! After Dr. Conrad, UMD physics department chair Steve Rolston took the hot seat. Another set of contenders tried their luck, and in the end, Dr. Rolston, too, experienced the icy cold water, thanks to a well-placed beanbag thrown by an undergraduate student from his own lab. We’re certain that made their next research meeting interesting!

Overall, the run was a tremendous success. Students, faculty, and members of the community interacted with physics in an unorthodox and engaging way while celebrating 100 years of Sigma Pi Sigma. On top of that, the money we raised helped us pay registration and accommodation costs for chapter members who attended the Physics Congress, where they connected with other students from all over the country. This event was such a success that we’re hoping to host another run this upcoming spring—our physics professors better invest in some rain gear!


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