Physics Outreach Effort Earns High Marks From Participants to Professors
COLLEGE STATION —
In just its fourth year, the Saturday Morning Physics Program at Texas A&M University has already surpassed expectations, both for student and teacher attendance, thanks to the organization and leadership of Dr. Ralf Rapp, associate professor of physics, and his team of volunteers.
What began in 2006 as a five-year research outreach program drawing about 15 students per lecture is now attracting an unprecedented average of 100 on any given Saturday during its current seven-weekend cycle, which is scheduled to conclude March 28, 2009.
Saturday Morning Physics, or SMP, is a free weekly lecture program targeted toward high school students and designed to introduce them to current research topics in physical science through a variety of speakers, quizzes and live demonstrations. Completion certificates are awarded to students who attend five of the program’s seven events — held on Saturdays throughout the months of January, February and March — and prizes are given to students with the highest quiz scores. The program as a whole is intended to expose these students to new research efforts and stimulate their interest in physics.
“The idea is to encourage interaction between students and faculty,” Rapp explains. “It is so they can have a unique insight into physics here [at Texas A&M]. Where else can they adequately learn about research going on at a level just for high school kids?”
Rapp, who joined the Texas A&M faculty in 2003, initiated the internationally popular program in Aggieland with the help of funding from a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) Career Award grant, which he received in 2004. It is modeled after the initial SMP program established in 1980 by renowned physicist Dr. Leon Lederman at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Chicago.
During the past three decades, Rapp says Lederman’s original outreach concept has spread rapidly throughout the United States and Europe — and now, to Texas A&M, to the benefit of science enthusiasts throughout the Brazos Valley and beyond. This year’s lecture series, which focuses on nuclear particle and astro-particle physics, has drawn students from as far away as Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — a surprising fact, Rapp notes, considering he only advertises the event to schools within a 30-to-50 mile circumference.
Each December, Rapp sends about 500 fliers to various schools in the surrounding region in an effort to attract students to the program, even going so far as to visit some schools personally to promote the benefits of SMP. Rapp says he also relies heavily on teachers spreading the information by word-of-mouth and encouraging their students to attend.
One such student is Kyle Chapkin, a junior at A&M Consolidated High School who has been attending SMP regularly for four years. Chapkin says he appreciates the fact that intricate and complex subjects are presented by guest lecturers in a simplified and engaging manner that is both suitable for and appealing to high school students such as him. Chapkin, who is considering studying a physical science field after high school, says that SMP has been a great influence on his perception of physics.
“SMP has been a help to me, if only because it has opened my eyes to what excitement the field holds and the possibilities that are open to me,” he says. “But even if you’re not going on to study physics or a related field, SMP is quite simply an opportunity to learn and help further your knowledge and education, which is always beneficial.”
Chapkin adds that SMP, while entertaining and enlightening, is not to be taken lightly.
“This is not a program for someone who does not take the subjects seriously,” he says. “If you wish to learn about physics, I would recommend the program, because you will gain so much from it, even if you have no background knowledge. But if you have no interest in learning or do not treat the subjects with respect, or face it with an open-mind, then this program is not for you.”
Rapp, who has overseen SMP at Texas A&M since its beginning, says the growth and development of his program would not be possible without the many volunteers who help put everything into motion. In absence of this critical assistance, he says, even the most miniscule tasks would add up and become a possibly insurmountable challenge for one person.
“I have a lot of volunteers who make this work, including the lecturers, and I couldn’t possibly do it all without them,” he explains. “Despite all of the work, it is really a rewarding experience, and all of my co-workers share that belief, I think.”
For more information on Saturday Morning Physics, including the 2009 program’s grand finale on March 28, visit http://cyclotron.tamu.edu/smp/ or contact Dr. Ralf Rapp at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or email@example.com
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