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UWRF Society of Physics Students are 'simply outstanding'

Each year the UW-River Falls Society for Physics students members hold a Haunted Lab with UWRF's "Chem Demons." Shown, SPS member Samantha Pedek (in costume as a lion) shows off fun activities with electrostatics. Photo courtesy of Earl Blodgett / UW-River Falls.1 / 2
At a Hudson Girls in Science night, UW-River Falls Society of Physics Students members Samantha Pedek (left), Laura Lusardi and Dagan Hathaway staff a booth where students could explore sound and vibration by making “singing cups” and examining Chladni patterns on a vibrating plate. Photo courtesy of Earl Blodgett/ UW- River Falls.2 / 2

It is unusual, said UW-River Falls Professor Earl Blodgett, for a chapter of the Society of Physics Students to receive an Outstanding Chapter award almost consecutively for some 20 years. That is exactly what UWRF's SPS chapter has done in receiving the award for the 20th time in 21 years.

"It's really meaningful, it's really exciting, but it's something that they kind of expect," said Blodgett of the SPS students. "Because we have been so consistent at being very active and outgoing over the years, it's more like it would be a real shock if we didn't get it."

Still, he said, the students are excited when they learn that they've earned the award again.

Blodgett said fewer than 10 percent of the chapters receive this award each year. There are some 800 chapters.

UWRF and Carthage College (Kenosha) chapters were the only two from Wisconsin to win Outstanding Chapter honors this year.

Blodgett said he feels UWRF succeeds due to continuity in the faculty.

"And our faculty have always recognized that this organization is a big part of our success as a program," he said. "So everyone in the department, all the faculty, buy into the idea by supporting and encouraging the students in this organization. It's good for the viability and success of the program."

Blodgett said about 40 students have filed their national memberships in SPS and 20-25 regularly attend weekly meetings. SPS works to find opportunities for students to attend state and national conferences,.

"We provide opportunities for them to do outside competitions, like a robotics competition," Blodgett said. "We try and provide a sense of community in the department."

That includes weekly meetings and meals.

SPS also tries to bring in at least one guest speaker each year. For example, last year Dr. Katie Shirey spoke about her career path as a physics major. The high school physics teacher narrowly missed being selected for the astronaut program, and now is an officer for the Knowles Foundation, which works to support and encourage high school science teachers.

The UWRF SPS Chapter was recognized for "outstanding efforts in community outreach," according to a UWRF news release.

On-campus outreach includes:

• SPS hosts groups from different schools, showing them around the labs, doing science activities and demonstrations

• A Haunted Lab event around Halloween with the UWRF Chem Demons

• UWRFs Girls in Science Day

Off-campus outreach includes:

• Visiting schools to talk about science

• Taking part in 3M's annual Super Science Saturday, putting on science activities for children

• Working at the physics day hosted by the Minnesota Twins, doing baseball-related physics activities for high school kids.

Science Olympiad

One more community outreach effort is the Science Olympiad. This year's event is set for Jan. 26. Blodgett is the coordinator.

"It's quite a day," Blodgett said, "because we have between 900 and 1,000 high school students on campus."

The students will compete in 28 events.

To make it all happen, Blodgett usually needs about 100 volunteers from the science and math departments. Volunteers usually include alumni and current students.

More than 60 teams of students from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Bismarck, N.D., and Lincoln, Neb., will compete in the eighth annual "Border Battle" Science Olympiad Tournament Jan. 26 at UWRF. Schools can have teams of up to 15 students who will divide the 28 events amongst themselves. Most events allow students to work in teams of two or sometimes three.

The events are in biology, chemistry, computer science, geology, mathematics, physics and engineering. Some events are written.

"They might sit down and frantically take an exam," Blodgett said. They'll have around 50 minutes to take a test on a topic in anatomy and physiology. for example.

Some events have hands-on contests where they might have to build something in advance, such as a rubber-band powered airplane, to see how well it can fly. One event this year will include identifying fossils, Blodgett said.

The UWRF Science Olympiad is split into large and small school divisions, Blodgett said.

Those are just a few examples of events in which students might compete. Students can earn individual medals and teams can compete for trophies.

But students can also earn something intangible.

"They get this fabulous experience of learning how to learn," Blodgett said. Many of the events cover subjects not included in high school curricula. "So the kids have to teach themselves enough to be able to compete in that event."

He said they also learn a lot about planning, time management and teamwork.

Blodgett said the event is important because it encourages scientific learning and scientific literacy in high school students. He also hopes it will show participating students that UWRF is a great place to go to school, particularly for STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — subjects.

Blodgett has seen some Science Olympiad competitors choosing UWRF to further their education.

"It's kind of hard to ... identify them in the 1,200 to 1,300 incoming freshman every year," he said. "But I see students, new students, on campus every fall wearing the T-shirt that we give them when they compete in our tournament. So that's always fun to see. Very satisfying."

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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