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By Leah Poffenberger
STEP UP is a national community of physics teachers, researchers, and professional societies with the mission of empowering educators, creating cultural change, and inspiring young women to pursue physics in college. Starting in April, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, STEP UP began an effort to help connect its nearly 2400 members through virtual social hours. While most of the events offered opportunities to discuss topics like distance learning strategies or the STEP UP project, six of the social hours featured distinguished guests—including four Nobel Laureates.
The STEP UP Social Hours were all informal gatherings, even those featuring prominent special guests, giving attendees a unique space to connect with each other and big names in physics. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Donna Strickland, Carl Wieman, Jim Gates, Bill Philips, and Barry Barish each joined a social hour to discuss anything from how to inspire physics students to favorite hobbies.
“It was fun to connect with our distinguished guests over Zoom in this way because they have great stories and info to share with the people who come to our social hours, but they’re also just people with hobbies and ideas,” says Anne Kornahrens, STEP UP project manager. “All of these social hours have been great in part because of these amazing people who have spent an hour with us.”
STEP UP Social Hours were originally conceived to reach physics teachers, who can feel isolated during the pandemic, but the events quickly grew to include other members of the STEP UP community.
“Our goal at the beginning was: COVID is happening, our community is isolated, we have the capacity to get everyone together on Zoom. Let’s make an event for teachers,” says Kornahrens. “We’ve had some good attendance by teachers, but the STEP UP community also has a lot of faculty, undergrad students, other educational specialists…We now have a gathering to bring the community together.”
The Social Hours began as a purely social gathering, but in order to create a valuable experience for attendees, the events expanded to topical discussions, virtual events like tours of the National High Magnetic Field Lab, and special events with distinguished physicists. With special guests like Bell Burnell, Gates, and Strickland, event attendees had opportunities to ask questions, share experiences, and just chat. “There were always moments where you would see smiles on peoples’ faces, realizing that this speaker is a nerd or has unique passions, just like me,” says Kornahrens.
Physics teacher Sara LeMar (North Shore Schools) shared her experience of attending a social hour and getting to chat with Strickland.
“To meet someone at the top of their field is an incredible experience and this social hour was no exception. The open question format made the virtual experience more comfortable,” says LeMar. “Not only did I walk away with an understanding of Dr. Strickland's research, but also a clearer perspective of the path she followed throughout her career. Her transparency made the conversation authentic and I hope to share her story with my students. While her accomplishments in the physics world are impressive, Dr. Strickland's journey to her success was really the takeaway from this meeting. I hope to attend more STEP UP social hours in the future because the community they are building is so important."
According to Kornahrens, as the school year has been picking up, STEP UP Social Hours will be less frequent, but virtual events are still in the works. One future activity will be to train STEP UP teachers virtually in the lessons included in the STEP UP program designed to inspire high school students, especially high school girls, to pursue physics in college.
“We would be open to continue connecting prominent figures to physics teachers, and we’re open to ideas on how to make this happen,” says Kornahrens. “The other big thing we want to offer is to bring physics teachers together to learn about and take the STEP UP lessons—we want to be supportive and meet the community members where they are, but at the same time we know getting the STEP UP lessons into their hands and inspiring and connecting students is what matters.”
STEP UP is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the STEM Transformation Institute at Florida International University, the American Association of Physics Teachers, Texas A&M Commerce, and APS. For more information, visit the STEP UP community on APS Engage at engage.aps.org/stepup.
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik