The Physics Department launched this semester’s colloquium with a presentation from Eugenia Etkina on the importance of engaging students in activities that reflect the actual practice of physics. The “Women in Physics” themed series will feature a wide variety of female speakers covering topics ranging from molecular physics to mapping Antarctica.

“It is a great opportunity for our students to see what the future may hold if they stay in Physics,” Foss Professor of Physics Thomas Morgan said.

Etkina is currently directing the physics teacher preparation program; she also works in the field of Physics Education Research at Rutgers University and co-founded Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE). Etkina explained that the key to success it to teach students how to think like physicists through hands-on experiments. In addition, she emphasized the importance of critical thinking for all students.

Although Morgan was in charge of putting together the series, Assistant Professor of Physics and of Integrative Sciences Christina Othon invited Etkina hoping to get some insight on teaching methods that can apply to all levels of physics.

“We’ve been talking a lot about the equity in our introductory sequence in physics,” Othon said.  “Students come to us from a variety of very different educational backgrounds and abilities. How do we create an equitable environment that allows people to succeed?”

Etkina’s presentation style reflected her message of integrating hands-on techniques. At one point, she asked the audience to explain in simplest terms why a balloon makes such a loud sound when it pops. This was followed by a several demonstrations to test the hypotheses.

“I think people were amazing,” Etkina said. “They stayed for an extra half an hour, they asked great questions and were very supportive. I met with all of the physics professors and I found that they’re very friendly, humorous, and they really care about students. They’re not afraid to say ‘I don’t know how to do it, but I’d like to learn.’”

Morgan was inspired to focus this semester’s colloquium on the careers of women after the University had hosted the American Physical Society Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics from Jan. 15 to 17. The physics colloquia normally do not have a theme, but the faculty is generally pleased with this semester’s new focus.

“Knowing about that conference and in charge of the colloquium for this semester gave me the idea to devote the physics colloquium series this semester to ‘Women in Physics,’” Morgan said.

Othon said that the theme would help bring light to issues that women face in regards to the physics major.

“It was a way for us to continue to support the women in our program,” Othon said. “Women are still underrepresented [in the field], and that is not different at Wesleyan.”

In discussing the origin of the theme, Othon noted how in most panels of speakers, there is only one woman.

“Why aren’t women being invited to [give] more talks?” Othon said. “The excuses for these major conferences that they gave for why there was such an underrepresentation of women was pretty bad and I think that struck a chord.”

The talks, although crossing a variety of disciplines, will also involve traditional topics such as molecular physics, condensed matter physics, and biophysics.

There are currently 14 graduate students in the Ph.D. program at the University, 5 of whom are women. Although this number is above the national average, Othon hopes that the series will be effective in supporting women in the department and hopes for increased diversity in the field.

“You need to empower people to know that even if you feel like an outsider, you’re not and that you can overcome that,” Othon said.

Othon also discussed how the colloquium could attract others from different backgrounds.

“Students come to us from a variety of very different educational backgrounds and abilities; how do we create an equitable environment that allows people to succeed?” Othon said.

The colloquium’s purpose is also to present research that is not done at the University to the University community.

“So I might bring in somebody that works in something that’s related to me so I can learn a new technique or a new theory, a different perspective,” Othon said.

The colloquium also serves to educate graduate students on research that is going on in the scientific community. There are also opportunities to connect and network students in this community.

Speakers also come from different backgrounds, exposing those who attend to different points of research.

“Speaker careers range from early out of school (less than 10 years) to senior people in long productive careers,” Morgan said.

Future talks hosted by the colloquium include a talk from Clara Moskowitz ’08, a physics major who is now an editor at Scientific America, and a talk on Mapping Antartica by Robin Bell of Columbia University.

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