2011 American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) Winter Meeting
by Travis Barnett, SPS Reporter, Angelo State University
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Krista Freeman from Cleveland State University (left) poses next to her poster with DJ Wagner, the SPS advisor at Grove City College. Krista Freeman from Cleveland State University (left) poses next to her poster with DJ Wagner, the SPS advisor at Grove City College.
Photo courtesy of Travis Barnett

As a senior undergraduate physics major at Angelo State University reporting on the national AAPT Winter Meeting in Jacksonville, Florida, an interesting thought occurred to me: How would Pavlov’s dogs have felt listening to him present his research?  Yes, there were a few times when I had the conditioned tendency to take notes, but on the whole I was pleasantly surprised with my first national physics conference.  I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Fred Dylla before and after his plenary speech about Ernest Rutherford and the Accelerator: “A Million Volts in a Soapbox.”  I also met with the very exciting and energetic Dr. Beth Cunningham, who was presiding over her first national meeting on her 9th day of work as executive officer of AAPT.  I met other physics students from across the nation, heard presentations about a variety of topics, and left with a deeper understanding of gravity, spandex, and the correlation between the two.  Overall, exploring the AAPT meeting was an exciting new angle of exploration into the field that I have happily chosen to investigate. 

After arriving in a chilly Jacksonville, Florida, I had a relatively calm transition into my AAPT experience on Sunday.  I took the day to relax, create an itinerary for the meeting, and do a little studying for the classes I was going to miss.  (Yes, my trip to Florida came at the expense of the first three days of my semester.)  Sunday night I attended the SPS Undergraduate Research and Outreach Poster Reception.  This was the beginning of my fascination with, and my deep respect for the leadership of AAPT that I developed during this meeting.  The posters were set up right outside of the exhibit hall, and while I expected to see some interest in the SPS session, I was genuinely surprised at how many inquiring teachers and professors took the time to speak with students about their research during a meeting structured mainly for professionals.  I spotted plenty of AIP executives and AAPT board members milling around the session.  I am constantly impressed with the sense of community within the field of physics.  Few other fields can boast similarities.

One smiling inquirer at the SPS Poster session was Dr. Beth Cunningham, who was introduced to me as the new executive officer of AAPT.  I was able to sit down with her for a few minutes and get some insight on the meeting from her perspective.  After spending time as a physics professor, associate dean, and provost at universities from across the nation, Dr. Cunningham officially started work as the executive director six days before jumping in front of the largest gathering of physics professors of the year; and she did it with some serious energy.  I caught the enthusiasm as she told me about the plenary speakers that were planned, as well as several round table discussions and sessions about which she was excited.  Sessions at the meeting included topics such as physics around the world, gender in the field of physics, physics in high schools, two year colleges, and four years colleges.  The list was never-ending.   I left my chat with Dr. Cunningham with a much more detailed itinerary!

  The Seattle Space Needle.  Photo courtesy of Colby Haggert SPS Director Gary White creates warps spacetime.
Photo by Lydia Quijada, AIP


Monday morning I attended, in my opinion, the most interesting talk of the convention: Ernest Rutherford and the Accelerator: “A Million Volts in a Soapbox.”  This talk was delivered by Dr. Fred Dylla, the Executive Director and CEO of the American Institute of Physics.  I was fortunate to have met Dr. Dylla this past summer during my SPS internship as a Mather Policy Intern, as well as to run into him once again Sunday night. I was even more intent on attending his presentation after hearing that he had been working on it for hundreds of hours since last summer in preparation for a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Ernest Rutherford’s discovery of the atomic nucleus.

Dr. Dylla presented an aspect of Rutherford’s discovery that I had actually never considered.  Not only did Ernest Rutherford discover the atomic nucleus, but he pioneered the first scattering experiment in order to do so.  Both of these discoveries have impacted our world in ways that most people will never comprehend!  The main focus of Dr. Dylla’s presentation was a presentation given by Rutherford to the Royal Society in 1927. In a nutshell, Rutherford postulated on how useful it would be to have the ability to create a million volts in a breadbox.  He had performed his own experiments with naturally occurring alpha particles, and had no way to increase their voltage or current.  He wanted a way to create a huge potential difference in a controlled environment (a breadbox), which would result in a beam of particles with a controllable intensity.  In essence, Ernest Rutherford discovered the atomic nucleus in 1911, and predicted the particle accelerator in 1927.  Today, 84 years after Rutherford addressed the Royal Society, particle accelerators are being used to delve even farther into the inner workings of the atomic nucleus that Rutherford himself discovered, using the very tool that he himself would have liked to use.  Today, particle accelerators have permeated research facilities across the world.  There is even an accelerator in the basement of the Louvre!

After giving my own presentation later that night, I attended the SPS Undergraduate Awards Session, and was introduced to my new favorite physics demonstration.  After everyone had had a chance to enjoy some hors d'oeuvres (amazing crab cakes, and the smallest hamburgers I have ever seen), Dr. Gary White, director of SPS, brought out the last thing most people in the room would have expected: the largest contiguous piece of spandex that I have ever seen!  Everyone in the room grabbed onto the edges of this orange wonder and stretched it out as Dr. White dumped a handful of marbles and golf balls into the center of what he then explained to us was our own orange stretchy universe, with a variable gravitational constant.  For the next twenty minutes, a room of students and adults were amazed as Dr. White demonstrated gravity, orbits, and even the tides of the Earth with spandex and marbles. 

AAPT Executive Director Beth Cunningham stopped by to participate in the gravitational spandex demos, as well as to congratulate all of the SPS members on their presentations and to comment on how the growing undergraduate student presence at AAPT meetings is noticed and much appreciated by the membership of AAPT.  After the demonstration, every member of SPS that presented at the AAPT meeting was recognized and photographed, and five outstanding presenters were named. 

Angelo State University students try to pop a balloon with a laser during the outreach event on Wednesday. Angelo State University students try to pop a balloon with a laser during the outreach event on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Angelo State University  

There were so many interesting presentations to attend, but they cannot all be reported.  By far the most engaging part of the meeting for me was helping to lead the Students Exploring Engineering and Science program, a science outreach program started by AAPT member Betty Preece to reach out to students local to the city hosting the AAPT meeting.  To me, it was a justification of sorts.  After spending the past few days learning about teachers and how to reach out to students, I was presented with an opportunity to do some teaching of my own.  Under the leadership of SPS staff, nine SPS student members and members of AAPT taught seventy-five eighth graders about electricity, inertia, light polarization, and lasers.  I personally had the opportunity to teach students about the difference between laser light and ‘ordinary light,’ and help them measure the width of their hair using laser light diffraction.  The eighth graders were also visited by Marie Curie, who was played exquisitely by engineer and actress Marie Frontezak.   The visit was not wasted on the ‘educators’ of the audience.  I think the SPS and AAPT members who were helping with the outreach were just as intrigued as the eighth graders, if not more so!

In full, I had an awesome experience in Jacksonville.  I attended talks on everything from nanotechnology to middle school science outreach, and never felt out of place or unaccepted as a student, which was my greatest fear when I was asked to attend by my professor.  The members and leaders of AAPT all care very much about students and fostering a new generation of physicists who will carry on the tradition of community and exploration. I left with a new determination as a student and I hope that this will not be my last AAPT national meeting.

About The Author

Travis Barnett, Angelo State UniversityTravis Barnett is a senior physics major at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. He also has minors in Math and Earth Science (Geology). He is on the ASU Student Senate and marches in the Ram Marching Band during football season. During the Spring he umpires high school baseball games for fun and a little side money.

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