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Outreach that works

Posted by Melissa on December 2, 2010

Several months ago, the band director at my old high school sent me a message asking if the next time I returned to my hometown I would chat with a junior who was considering a physics career. Always excited to talk with a potential future physicist, I happily agreed, and I thoroughly enjoyed the hour-plus conversation I had yesterday with this enthusiastic young woman. I asked what had promoted her interest in physics. Among other things, she mentioned Saturday Morning Physics (SMP) at Fermilab. It struck a chord because SMP was one outreach program that played a key role in my decision to pursue physics, and I’ve met at least one or two other physicists originally from the Chicago area who were influenced by that program.

Although a variety of outreach programs impacted my choice of career, the SMP program at Fermilab was one of the most influential.* I’ve often thought about why it had such an influence on me. One obvious difference between SMP and other programs is that it was more than just an afternoon or a weekend of science. The program was 8 or 9 weeks long, and every week included both a lecture and a lab tour.  I remember that I would think about the topic presented on Saturday for the entire week following the lecture, and I would look forward with anticipation to the next Saturday when I would be introduced to another mind-boggling topic. That brings me to the second aspect of SMP that made it different — the choice and presentation of topics. SMP didn’t tell me about physics. Rather, it introduced me to the questions that kept physicists up at night, the strange paradoxes and unsolved problems that would engage physicists for decades to come. Physics was portrayed as a field that would welcome curious minds to tackle the big questions; what we knew appeared to be utterly fantastic and there were many unanswered questions waiting for future generations of physicists.

It seems as if instilling this sense of mystery and awe is one of the goals of the program. In his account of the history of SMP on the SMP website, Roger Dixon writes:

We preferred that [students] be given enough facts to mystify them and to make them want to learn more about the subject.   These are students who have seen the wonders of Star Trek on television, so they are not easy to impress.   It always gave me a good deal of satisfaction to find that I could amaze them with an account of the Twin Paradox and convince them that real science can be more fantastic than science fiction.

I’d be interested to hear if others had outreach experiences that influenced their choice to pursue a science career. What was the program, and what made it attractive?



* The ironic thing about the SMP program is that, although it did a fantastic job of getting me into physics, it made me aware that I absolutely did not want to be a cosmologist or particle physicist. Ah well!


2 Responses to “Outreach that works”

  1. Jasper said

    Nice to hear about another successful outreach. I’m curious as to what pushed you away from particle physics and cosmology?

    • Melissa said

      It wasn’t the subject matter that pushed me away from these subfields, but rather how the physics was done. While I could envision myself working with 5 or 10 “friends” on a physics project, the idea of working with 500 “friends” on a project seemed overwhelming to my high school self. Also, I liked the idea of tinkering in a lab, something that it seemed like there wouldn’t be much opportunity to do in cosmology.

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