Guiding students to physics

These are a few of the Fermilab scientists who have particpated in the Adopt-a-Physcist program.

Becoming a physicist is a long journey that begins early for many. Students in high school physics classes can’t always see that far down the career path and are often left with unanswered questions: What does it actually mean to be a physicist? What impact do physicists have on the world? How realistic is this kind of work?

For more than five years, students have posed questions like these to professionals in the physics world as part of a program called Adopt-a-Physicist. In the current session, running from Nov. 5 to Nov. 22, around 120 physicists and professionals with physics backgrounds converse in an online forum with 80 different classes across the country and abroad. Each physicist connects with up to three classes and each class adopts up to five physicists. When a student poses a question on the forum, the adopted physicist is emailed.

“I enjoy it,” said Fermilab physicist Peter Garbincius, who facilitates Fermilab’s Ask-a-Scientist program. “It’s good for the kids. Some really seem to grow and you know this because you have interactions with the same kids for three weeks.”

In previous sessions, Garbincius connected with students from Canada and Nigeria. This month he has a class in Pattan, India. The online platform allows Garbincius to contribute supplemental resources to the conversation. Along with links to helpful websites, he can also upload photos and video and write longer answers than a chat room or real-time conversation would allow.

“We really wanted to get students engaged in a conversation,” said Kendra Redmond, Society of Physics Students program coordinator for Adopt-a-Physicist. “That’s when things get really meaningful, when students get to know the physicists and see they’re real people with hobbies and that physics wasn’t always easy for them either.”

Many of the questions are about general aspects of a physicist’s life or about physics seen in a movie, but others show real scientific interest, covering topics like dark matter, dark energy, space telescopes and news of faster-than-light neutrinos.

Though the conversations often begin with a formal tone, Fermilab senior engineering physicist Bill Freeman said it often changes throughout the session.

“If you’re doing well, it becomes more casual, like a longer form of text messaging,” Freeman said.

Freeman is always one to explore new avenues to get kids interested in physics. He has been a judge for middle school science fairs for 15 years and signed up for the Adopt-a-Physicist program two years ago.

Meanwhile, Fermilab physicist Don Lincoln has volunteered in the program for three years now and never misses an opportunity to reach out to the public.

“We can make connections to kids,” he said. “Not all will be physicists, but maybe one will.”

Brad Hooker