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Building up a department/HS Outreach

  1. Aug 10, 2010 #1

    Pengwuino

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    So here is the situation our department seems to face. We are a fairly large public school in the central valley of California. Our department is shrinking and there is little opportunity for students to be competitive for when they apply to phd schools. This summer, a fellow student and I are at SLAC (him for the summer working here and me for 2 weeks attending the summer institute) and we began discussing the problem and started realizing what was going on.

    The problem seems two-fold. 1) The students who are in our department seem like they "wound up" in physics instead of having a genuine interest in it and 2) we have little advantage over other schools as far as things students can do to become competitive when applying to phd schools and in general, gather skills they need for real jobs in the field.

    Our solution seems two-fold as well. We currently work with CERN and send students over there every summer, although the results haven't been all that great. It seems more like people just getting a free trip to Europe instead of getting to work on one of the greatest physics experiments of our time. This is lovely and all, but it seems like branching out to SLAC would help build on this since if needed, we can send students there far easier than CERN. This would allow students to get experience easier since we can supplement the summer stuff at CERN with full time participation with SLAC (or at least supplemental summer work with SLAC). Our thinking is if we can achieve more collaboration with SLAC, it would open up a lot more doors for our graduating students and our department.

    The second problem is the people who attend our department. We want to start working with high schoolers locally, namely AP physics students, and give students the opportunity to work little side research with our university (something they can handle). We can get them to attend our departments colloquiums and stuff like that and possibly sponsor trips to SLAC to see the lab and see what physics really is about! Our hope is that we can get students to rethink higher end universities and attend our university. To me, the big name schools credentials, to high schoolers, is all hear-say (not that it is hear-say!) and we want to show them that even universities like ours can carry our own weight.

    Of course, going from a small department with one connection with CERN to hopefully a bigger department with connections to CERN, SLAC, and possibly other places, is a big undertaking. However, it's 2010... and it makes me wonder why no one seems to have thought about this before in our department? Does anyone have experience building up programs like this? We are well aware of budgetary issues, so we are thinking modestly.

    I'd love to hear peoples ideas and thoughts and if I'm lucky, some insight from people who have already tried this.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 10, 2010 #2

    cristo

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    I'm all for encouraging kids and all, but I'm just wondering whether this sort of stuff works. For example, do high school kids really get anything out of your departmental colloquia?
     
  4. Aug 10, 2010 #3

    Pengwuino

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    Do our own students get anything out of it? :rofl:

    If we did that, we would be very specific as to which talks we chose. There is occasionally a talk that is absolutely fascinating to everyone (obviously non-technical). One of those talks that makes you think "WOW! I LOVE PHYSICS!". We all love physics and we find it exciting and we know there has to be a way to convey that. For example, we had someone a few years back come talk who use to work on something involved with the Star Wars projects back in the day with LLNL. I was maybe a 2nd year undergrad and it was absolutely amazing! I can imagine high school students would get a ki.ck out of something like that instead of the things we do now which is going to a school and shoving them things like liquid nitrogen making a flower shatter and the usual nonsense like that. To me, and hopefully to a 17 year old AP physics student, the idea of working on a hundred foot high, 20 mile wide machine is infinitely more interesting than a flower shattering, even if they dont have the ability to go see CERN (although actually seeing SLAC is more realistic!)
     
  5. Aug 13, 2010 #4

    Pengwuino

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    I know there has to be other people who have looked into or tried or seen something like this attempted. No one has any tips or ideas or aaaaaanything! SADFACE!!
     
  6. Aug 13, 2010 #5

    Andy Resnick

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    Growing a department is a commendable undertaking. I'm in a similar situation: my Department is small, has been starved of resources for years, and is considered by the University to be a 'service' Department.

    I don't think there is one correct solution. Personally, I start with a 'vision statement': how can I raise the visibility of the Department? There's lots of ways to do this, and I think for you, creating closer *meaningful* ties with SLAC is a smart move.

    As far as improving the level of incoming students, in my case, there's not much I have control over- we don't have direct admissions. However, I think that the current US economy has made State schools much more attractive and competitive, so I am hoping we get more applications. In the end, all I can do is provide the students I have with a quality experience, to help them become competitive in *whatever* they choose to do after graduation: grad school or job.
     
  7. Aug 13, 2010 #6

    Pengwuino

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    Do you think it makes much sense to try to lure kids who are probably bound for high end universities to our university? The economy sure is helpful to say the least, but it feels like we're doing the students a disservice even though in our eyes, we feel our department can offer plenty of opportunities. Is it wrong to pull them away from your Stanfords and MITs, or are we just showing them what we offer and letting them make their own decision? Is a bad or small department/university actually responsible for their own lack of interest from high school students, or is there kind of an understanding that certain universities 'know their place' and we shouldn't expect to bring in students of such caliber?

    In the end I wonder what a University like ours has to gain by having a tough department surrounded by weak departments and colleges and..... well, an entire weak administration.
     
  8. Aug 14, 2010 #7

    Andy Resnick

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    There's nothing wrong with outreach and recruiting. But it will be more productive (and less frustrating) if you know your competition: both the Departments you are competitive with *now*, and the Departments you want to be competitive with (say) 5 years from now.

    I mean competitive for students: the students who apply to your school also apply where?
     
  9. Aug 14, 2010 #8

    Pengwuino

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    I think we are definitely a safety school probably only competitive with other universities in our system. We're in the CSU (California state university) system which is the 2nd tier state school system. I'm not too sure how I can get a fair judgement as to whether or not that is the case though. I'm sure if asking for input from my department might have a bit of a bias.
     
  10. Aug 15, 2010 #9

    Andy Resnick

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    Something that may be useful- every 5 years our Department undergoes a 'self assessment' exercise as part of the accreditation requirements; AFAIK all Departments do something similar. Maybe you can find and read past reports but I don't know how public those documents are.
     
  11. Aug 17, 2010 #10
    It does make sense. I'm at a large state university (Tennessee), and it does attract some top-end students (who had offers from MIT/Harvard, etc.). Some of the decision is financial, sometimes it's tied to things like proximity to a sick parent or even personal illness/disability. It also isn't bad that we do have ties to a national lab (ORNL). So it's possible. But here I'll throw some salt on...

    Mostly, however, recruitment isn't done by the department in particular. Most of the recruitment of top-end students is done through the honors/scholars program office... which typically does set up students for a tour with the department and a meeting with the department head (or even dean). The honors program is better set to negotiate the big money offer (full tuition/books, etc.) that will attract the top student looking for the monetary deal (typically through a scholar's program -- which is a selective program with an incoming class of anywhere from about 15-40 students). In our case, the program even facilitates students getting internships out at ORNL. Showing a strong honors program (offering a variety of honors gen-ed courses) is also good... Top students typically want a top education in all their classes (not just their main field). This is my concern in your recruitment process (the bad administration at upper levels isn't so bad... we've had our run through of administrators lately...). Granted, I don't know that any of these students are currently in physics... a lot of them want to be really 'philanthropic' and become medical doctors or work on public policy (both of which aren't out of the range of a physics major, but not the most prominent areas that physics faculty will advise towards).

    That sad, having a profile with local schools is a good thing. even if you don't attract that top valedictorian, knowing that he/she did some work with your department (prehaps with the national lab) will give your department a profile at local schools, and perhaps recruit some other decent students (if enrollment in the major is a concern... and I know it is for our department... the A&S dean is just now starting to act on his threat that classes may be cut if minimum enrollment is not met, and with 5-10 majors per year, our upper-levels almost never meet the minimum).
     
  12. Aug 17, 2010 #11

    Pengwuino

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    So I need to look at how our university presents itself to high schools already. Given the low-status of our university, I have a feeling outreach is pretty light. I will take some time to talk to the professor who seems to be 'in-charge' of the honors activities. I'm not really sure how the honors program works at our university. We don't actually have any honors physics courses so I'm not sure what it does.

    I'm starting to think that grabbing the top 5 from a school may not be what we should focus on. Realistically, how much better is the top 1% compared to the 2-percentile when it comes to a department like ours that isn't trying to be a top 1% department.
     
  13. Sep 17, 2010 #12
    I just wanted to note one thing that you said that may be a little of topic but still...

    You should not see it, I think, as you steal them from better universities.
    If they genially are interested in physics (and have the basic "material" for learning) and you give them the opportunity to grow, I believe they will excel.
    Then when they go to other universities, they will think fondly of their home university and you will get contacts with other groups which are half the success.

    Just my thoughts from being in two “growing” workplaces.
     
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