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March 6, 2009

During the Physics Spring Carnival 2008, Rachael Roettenbacher ’08, left, and Steph Vasicek ’08 demonstrate how a pickle can be used to conduct electricity.
Photo by Elaine Chun

OWU Physics Students Have Serious ‘Phun’
Group’s activities earn it ‘Outstanding SPS Chapter’ honors

Every Friday, a group of Ohio Wesleyan students and professors gather at noon in the Atrium of Schimmel/Conrades Science Center to enjoy a leisurely lunch and casual conversation.

It’s the weekly “Physics, Phood, and Phun” meeting of OWU’s chapter of the national Society of Physics Students (SPS).

Asked how the gathering got its “unphorgettable” name, professor Bob Harmon turns toward professor Brad Trees. “I thought it was you,” Harmon says with a smile, “because you are a very good physicist, but a horrible speller.”

Trees thinks for a moment and grins. “I’ll take that,” he says.

Trees says he thinks the physics club, which includes nearly every student in the department as a member, is so popular because it’s place where “it’s OK to be nerdy.”

Translation: It’s a place where people share the same analytical mindset, the same research interests, the same pop-culture references, and where they know it’s OK to laugh at jokes about energy, momentum, and other physics “pheatures”.

The SPS chapter and the weekly meetings also are a place to discuss everything from classroom concerns to social schedules.

Steven Kelly ’12 of Newbury Township, Ohio, says he enjoys relaxing with the group on Fridays after spending the week meeting the challenge of his classes. “It loosens the nerves,” he says.

Professor Bob Kaye, chapter adviser for SPS, says the lunchtime meetings often include talk of upcoming chapter and departmental events. On this particular Friday, Kaye announces that the chapter likely will return to Briggs High School in Columbus in April to give a “Physics is Phun” demonstration.

During the demonstrations, OWU students make ice cream using liquid nitrogen, create magnifying lenses with gelatin, explain how centripetal force keeps roller coaster riders in their seats, and more. The educational events are funded by a Marsh M. White Award for Public Outreach given to Ohio Wesleyan by the national SPS organization.

“One student said that seeing us use liquid nitrogen to make ice cream was the coolest (pun intended) thing he did at Briggs High School,” Kaye says of the chapter’s 2008 visit. “It’s great to have that strong of an impact.”

Over time, Kaye hopes to visit a high school in the fall during the college application cycle and to visit an elementary or middle school in the spring to help share OWU’s physics “phascination” with younger pupils.

The camaraderie of OWU physics students and faculty is evident in the number of students attracted to the discipline. In 2010, the department will have 10 graduating majors. “If that’s not a record, it’s close,” Trees says.

The University’s strong Summer Science Research Program and other research opportunities also attract current and potential physics students.

William Kenny ’09 of Norwalk, Ohio, participated in the Summer Science Research Program last summer and currently is working on his senior research project. Kenny is studying solar energy and digital electronics. He also is studying the feasibility of solar energy on the OWU campus.

“It’s not Phoenix, obviously,” Kenny says of Ohio’s sometimes-less-than-sunny weather. “But the theory is, if we can make it work here, we can make it work anywhere.”

Kenny, president of OWU’s SPS chapter, says he decided to major in physics after taking Physics 110 and 111 with Trees. “Once you’re in, you’d better keep going,” he says, explaining that it’s important to keep your skills and knowledge base fresh.

True to form, his “keep going” reference kicks off a round of momentum quips. So while it’s clear that physics really is “phun” at Ohio Wesleyan, it’s also serious and successful, too.

Using Kenny’s solar energy studies as an example, Kaye points out that OWU’s research is contemporary. For more proof, he points to the success of recent graduates Rachael Roettenbacher ’08 and Yun-Kyoung “Claire” Ryu ’07. Each earned a national SPS award for outstanding undergraduate research in her senior year, and each went on to represent the United States at that year’s International Conference of Physics Students.

In addition, Ohio Wesleyan’s SPS chapter was selected in February by the national SPS organization as an “Outstanding SPS Chapter” for the 2007-2008 academic year. Selection is based on the depth and breadth of a chapter’s activities in several areas, including research, public education efforts, tutoring programs, and representation at physics meetings and events. It’s also based on social activities for students, such as the weekly “Physics, Phood, and Phun” events.

Click here to read more about OWU’s award.

– Cole Hatcher