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Christine O'Donnell

University of Virginia, AAPT Education Policy Intern

Christine is working with the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) this summer.

View Christine's Final Presentation.

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Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 6 | Week 7 | Week 8 | Week 9 | Final Reflections

Final Reflections

This summer was a good experience for me. I knew there was a lot to the field of science policy, and I knew that my public policy master coursework would be useful. However, nothing beats first-hand experience working on science policy. While my policy program does a good job teaching communication and policy skills, the program doesnít have a huge amount of science policy background. Thus, investigating that aspect of a policy education was useful to me.

In terms of my project, I was happy with the results. While Iím currently a bit too busy to put a lot of time into finishing up the loose ends, Iím looking forward to next semester when I will have the chance to work with AAPT on my masterís capstone project (which, coincidentally, will give me the time I need to finish up my summer project). I liked that at the end of the summer, I felt that the project was ďmyĒ work and have ownership over my accomplishments. The only downside to the project was time constraints Ė I canít do everything that could ever be done in one summer. Iíve faced time constraints a lot in my academic and research careers, and so I did expect it to come up during my internship. But that didnít make it any easier to deal with.

For my future plans, this internship contributed to my understanding of policy and other things I can do with my science background. As much as I love doing research, Iíve always enjoyed studying the humanities, communicating science with the public, and engaging with people outside of pure science. I made my academic career more interdisciplinary than almost all of the physics majors in my year, and I like to have balance between different subject areas. Policy was an outlet for my other interests that Iím interested in pursuing, and while Iíll continue exploring other outlets, Iíll keep this internship in mind when deciding what I eventually want to do with my life.

Week 9: The End to a Great Summer
August 5-9, 2013

Our last week was a blur of presentations and final evaluations. We had a day to practice and finalize our presentations for the SPS Intern Symposium. Fortunately, my presentation was nearly done, so I spent most of Monday playing with my color scheme to make sure everything was clear and readable when projected on the large screen in the conference room.

On Tuesday, invited mentors, family and friends, and ACP staff attended the symposium on and watched our presentations. My parents enjoyed hearing my presentation and the wide range of work done by other interns. After the presentations, my parents went to see the Niels Bohr Library at AIP (John from AAPT offered to give them a tour), and the other interns and I went to the State Department. We met a few physicists and astronomers who work at the Department (and one who worked at the Office of Science & Technology Policy). They discussed how they use their science background in their work doing science for policy and/or policy for science. Their perspective was similar to those we met during our tour of the Capitol – they use science in non-science fields – but they work more on the implementation side of policy.

Wednesday morning was also quite busy filling out evaluations for the internship program and signing thank-you cards. We then did a tour of ACP for the other interns and stopped by the library, APS, and AAPT. Beth made the AAPT stop interesting with a few demos and teaching toys including a tippy top (a top that turns over if you spin it fast enough). I enjoyed seeing the library archives since it reminded me of seeing the archives last summer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Wednesday night we hung out in the dorms one last time before we all packed up and moved out. It was bittersweet, but a good ending to the summer nonetheless.

Week 8: Wait, it's Week 8 already?!
July 29-August 2, 2013

This summer went by way too quickly, but then again, I say that almost every summer. It’s weird to think that in a few days, we’ll be done with our internships.

Given that this is the last week of “real” work (i.e., before presentations and closing stuff), I’ve spent the week trying to finalize at least a few documents. I’ve also been thinking about the website design. David (AAPT’s website guy) drafted a new design based on what I wanted to include that reduces the clutter and list-like look of the current Policy section. I’m excited to keep working on the website! On that note, I’m hoping to do my “master’s thesis” for my public policy degree with AAPT (thesis is in quotes because it’s not a traditional thesis, but more of a white paper or policy analysis). Working with AAPT for the “thesis” will give me more time to continue my work from the summer, and I want to see this project through. From the Summer Meeting, I learned that people are interested in advocacy, but most aren’t sure how to start. I want to help with that start and enable members to advocate for science education, and so I want to stay with AAPT.

In addition, I’ve worked more on my final presentation. I had half of the final presentation from the AAPT Summer Meeting, but I modified the second half to include more of the “final” products than an extended example of building an advocacy strategy. I decided to include lots of screenshots of the documents I’m creating, and that forced me to finish designing several of the one-pagers.

Finally, to avoid getting bogged down in the “things I’m going to miss” list, I’ve instead worked on the list of “things I definitely won’t miss.” Most of these things are (unsurprisingly) Metro-related: waking up early, the long commute, the busy trains, the odd train operator who tries to use a sing-song voice when announcing stations… It’s not a terribly long list, but it’s still something to occupy my mind. And now, back to finishing this presentation to show one of my mentors this afternoon before our official practice sessions next week!

Week 7: Portland!
July 22-26, 2013

This week was the much-anticipated AAPT Summer Meeting in Portland.  I spent most of Saturday sitting in airports and on airplanes (I had a nice long layover in Houston).  Luckily, I remembered to load my iPod with some TV shows, so the trip wasn’t too boring.  As we landed in Portland, we got a really great view of Mt. Hood from the plane!

First Glimpse of Mount Hood

Sunday I took time to explore the city in between the Executive Board session and Section Representatives meeting.  During the two meetings, I gave a short presentation about the advocacy tools I’m creating for AAPT.  The response was generally very positive, and several of the Board members and Section Reps were interested in having the resources.

But the more exciting part of Sunday was having time to explore the city – Portland has an eclectic mix of shops, and so it was fun to walk around.  I decided to wander towards Powell’s City of Books, which sells new and used books.  The store spans more than one city block and it’s easy to get lost within the store.  I managed to find “Building 2,” the home of their technical books including physics and astronomy books.  I spent a few hours reading astronomy textbooks and popular science books, and then I decided I had to make a purchase before I tried to buy an entire shelf of astronomy books since there was no way it would fit in my luggage.  Luckily, I had a coupon ($5 off a $25 purchase), so I somewhat arbitrarily set myself a $25 purchase maximum.  I managed to reduce my load of books to a $26.47 purchase and decided it was close enough :)


And these shelves are just the physics section…Building 2 also had separate astronomy, computer science/programming, building, etc. sections. I was too overwhelmed by Building 1 to remember to take photos there, but it was multiple floors of every subject under the sun…

I then walked towards the river (passing several food truck lots along the way) and walked down the park along the Willamette River.  It was a nice view, and the weather was really nice (while Portland was “hot” in terms of temperature, it doesn’t have the oppressing high humidity that DC has). I even caught a glimpse of Mt. Hood across the river!

On Monday morning, since the sessions weren’t particularly interesting to me, I decided to find Portland’s aerial tram.  While walking by the river the previous day, I had noticed some cable cars that passed overhead, and I had found out they’re transportation between Portland and Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU).  The aerial tram though offers a really nice view of Portland from above!  Since it was a clear day, Mt. St. Helens was visible from OHSU.  Mt. Hood was also visible, but because it was to the east and the sun was in that direction, I couldn’t get a clear photo.

Left: View of the Willamette River. Right: A view of Mt. Hood across the Willamette River.

The conference itself was a lot of fun, too. There was a wide range of sessions on a variety of topics, including methods for teaching introductory courses, discussing science and society, and teaching under the Next Generation Science Standards. There were also workshops hosted by companies that create kits and demos for classrooms. I attended one workshop by the Perimeter Institute where they showed their classroom demonstrations for uniform circular motion as part of a kit about dark matter. One of the primary lines of evidence for dark matter is the rotation speeds of stars in galaxies. With the "normal" matter in galaxies (i.e., what we can observe), we would expect stars further from the center of a galaxy to rotate slower about the galactic center. However, the rotation speed does not slow down, which led to the discovery of dark matter around galaxies.

The conference also had time for committee meetings Ė AAPT is divided into over 15 committees that handle various aspects of physics teaching, including Committees on Women in Physics, Science Education for the Public, and Apparatus. I attended a few meetings, and I think I managed to volunteer to help out the Committee on Space Science & Astronomy on writing position papers on issues important to the Committee, such as whether teachers with physics backgrounds are qualified to teach introductory astronomy classes.

Finally, the conference also had several interesting plenary and awards talks. There were a few awards for teachers and professors that have contributed to the community and improved physics education, and the awardees gave talks about their work. The plenary talks were also good, especially the one hosted by APS. During that session, two researchers talked about their work in synthesizing and discovering elements 112 and beyond. They also discussed efforts at achieving an atom with 183 neutrons, which is where a supposed "island of stability" (i.e., a range where stable superheavy elements exist).

Left: View of Portland from OHSU. Mt. St. Helens visible in the distance (sorry again for the low quality). Right: Picture of one of the cable cars, taken from the other cable car on the way down.

Overall, the conference was a lot of fun, and I hope to be able to attend future AAPT meetings!  After an exhausting day traveling back to DC (again, long layovers aren’t fun…), I was abruptly  reminded of our high humidity.  I could really get used to Portland’s weather and lower humidity…  But alas, I have work to do here in DC.  On Friday, we visited NIST, which was an awesome tour but will have to wait for next week’s journal!

Week 6: Conference Prep and NASA Awesomeness
July 15-19, 2013

Since next week is the AAPT Summer Meeting in Portland, the office was pretty busy with final preparations.  For me, besides practicing the presentation I’ll be giving to the Executive Board and Section Representatives, I also worked more on completing drafts of the resources I plan to finish this summer.  I worked on creating a one-pager to explain why we need more funding for NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program as well as brainstorming ideas for a one-pager about AAPT.  I’m also working on a one-pager to give some advice on how to set up and conduct direct meetings with policymakers.  The goal is to have a set of short documents that are “complete” – a member can take these, read them, and be prepared to do advocacy.  During the Summer Meeting, I hope to get some feedback and suggestions from members about what will help them and so I can tailor these documents to their needs.

The highlight of the week though (at the risk of repeating my fellow interns) was a visit to NASA Goddard.  We got to attend a town hall meeting where Charlie Bolden (NASA Administrator) answered questions about what NASA is doing and how it relates to Goddard employees.  Bolden is very personable and likes to tell stories and give advice, especially to NASA interns.  We then had a long, extended tour of some of Goddard’s facilities and work, including seeing a large centrifuge used to test whether instruments will withstand the forces of launch and seeing Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (which was removed during the 2009 servicing mission).  It was a really special treat!  The WFPC2 is set to go on display at the Air & Space Museum in December, but we got to see it first.  The camera is missing its radiator since it’s currently being tested due to micrometeorite impacts while the camera was in space.  Finally, we got to hear about the research that Alec and Darren are doing at Goddard – they certainly set the bar way too high for other facility visits :)

Anyway, now I’m off to Portland for the Summer Meeting, and while I neglected to bring a camera to the Goddard visit, I’ll be sure to come back from Portland with pictures to share!

Week 5: Short Week, short post
July 8-12, 2013

Last week, I finalized the presentation I will give at the AAPT Summer Meeting next weekend to the Executive Board and Section Representatives. We want to let them know about the work I’m doing and encourage members to pursue advocacy, so my talk focuses on what resources I am creating. I will also talk about examples of where advocacy is important (e.g., funding for research experiences, professional development, etc.). I’m excited to head off to Portland at the end of this week for the Summer Meeting! It should be a good experience with time both to network and attend workshops at the meeting as well as some time to explore Portland.

It was also a short workweek with the 4th of July holiday. I went home for the weekend to spend time with my family. While we didn’t go to see fireworks, we instead ate at a restaurant and had their “celebration cake” – a chocolate-covered cake with a lighted sparkler on top :)

Week 4: Research, receptions, and political satire
July 1-5, 2013

Last weekend was pretty quiet – I spent most of my time catching up on sleep and Doctor Who, and I also did some astronomy research (I’m still involved in quite a few projects from my undergraduate work).

For this week, my goal was to complete a detailed example of how to approach an issue and advocate. The example will serve two purposes: (1) it will serve as a guide for AAPT members to follow when pursuing advocacy on their own, and (2) it will become talking points on the issue for AAPT to use. I chose to make an example about increasing funding for NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. NSF provides grants to institutions (universities, national labs, etc.) to provide summer research opportunities for students. I actually completed an REU last summer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and I can vouch for the program’s effectiveness. But my anecdotal evidence won’t be enough – I had to find actual data to back up why REUs are a good thing. I spent a couple days trying to aggregate data on REUs and research experiences in general, and then I wrote up a summary of how to create an advocacy strategy to support increased REU funding.

Besides work, I also attended a reception on Thursday with the AIP Development Board. Everyone was interested in learning more about the interns since their funding provided for the internship program. The food was really good, and the conversations were nice as well. I mentioned my work on developing a strategy for advocating for REUs with a few of the people at the reception, and I got some good feedback and comments on the REU program in general.

Finally, there will be a reception this Friday night with the SPS Executive Committee followed by going to see the Capitol Steps, a music and political satire group. I’ve heard a lot about the Capitol Steps (I grew up in the DC area), and I’m really excited to finally get to see them perform!

Week 3: Another Fine Potpourri of a Week
June 24-28, 2013

While my week was semi-calm, it was a busy week for AAPT. Tuesday through Thursday was the semi-annualworkshop for new astronomy and physics faculty. The goal of the workshop is to encourage new faculty members to be better and more effective teachers. I attended a few of the sessions to learn about some of the new techniques they’re encouraging new faculty to try.

The other exciting event was attending the House Subcommittee on Space hearing about the NASA Authorization Act of 2013 (good summaries of the hearing are here and here). Many were critical of the budget numbers, including all the Democrats and several Republicans (though not all), since the budget did not seem to match what would be needed to accomplish the goals outlined in the legislation (e.g., sending humans to Mars). Both sides were supportive of a prohibition preventing NASA from following the Obama administration’s proposed STEM education program reorganization which would eliminate many NASA education programs. Many members felt that additional hearings were needed on parts of the draft, and the Republicans appeared to be split on support for the draft.

Other than those events, I’ve been working more on advocacy resources and set a preliminary timeline to improve my focus. I’m also starting to think about the AAPT Summer Meeting in Portland in July. I will give a short talk to the AAPT Section Representatives about the work I’m doing and encourage them to be effective advocates. Finally, I’ve been working more on developing advocacy strategies for specific issues (to go along with the resources as examples).

On a lighter note, we visited the Newseum last weekend. I hadn’t been there since they moved it to DC, and the new location was intriguing. It’s on Pennsylvania Avenue down the road from the Capitol (reinforcing media as the “4th branch” of government perhaps?), and has excellent exhibits, including an archive room with historical newspapers. Well worth a visit for anyone in DC :) We may visit other museums this weekend, and it should be a lot of fun, as always.

Week 2: All Work and all play
June 17-21, 2013

As cliché as it sounds, it’s incredibly amazing to think this is already the end of the second week. My calendar seemed to be less packed with activities, and yet the time flew by even faster.

This week started off with a STEM outreach festival on Sunday at Howard County Community College. We tested a couple demos developed by the SOCK interns, including transmitting sound via a laser beam and comparing diffraction patterns of LEDs and lasers. I used to do these sort of outreach activities in high school, so it was a lot of fun to work with young kids again.

In terms of work-related things, it was another busy week. For the advocacy materials that I’m creating for AAPT members, I want to include a “stat pack” of sorts to give members access to numbers and data on physics and science education. Effective arguments are often backed by hard data and a good statistic, and advocates typically leave “one-pagers” when they meet with policymakers. A one-pager is a short brief to reinforce the relationship with the policymaker and show that the advocate is a good source of information when the policymaker needs an answer to a question. The document often includes large graphs and graphics, so I’m working to collect useful information for members to use when creating one-pagers and similar documents.

Additionally, I went to a Summit on Monday held by the Business Higher Education Forum (BHEF) about how to increase the number of STEM graduates. It was interesting to hear all the different viewpoints, and I can incorporate those concerns when developing advocacy materials (e.g., I can make sure that I frame issues to alleviate those concerns). I also attended a video conference with AAPT’s Policy Consultancy to get their views and opinions on the work I’ve been doing.

Now, that’s not to say this week was all work and no play – on the contrary, there was lots of play. We went to the Ben & Jerry’s in Georgetown, watched The Italian Job (2003 version) at an outdoor theatre, and will go to a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. We’ll also be going to the Newseum this weekend. The ACP picnic was on Wednesday, including an egg race, open mic, and free barbeque. And this paragraph is nowhere near being an exhaustive list of everything that’s happened this week :)

I think I’ve made good progress on my project and will be able to give AAPT some really nice advocacy resources at the end of this. I’ve also made good progress on exploring the field and enriching my own knowledge. And so, it’s onto the next week of the internship – and if these two weeks are any guide, it’s going to be a blast.

Week 1: Let the Craziness Begin
June 10-14, 2013

At the risk of repeating all my fellow interns, it’s been one crazy week.

Monday’s orientation tested our limits for how much information we could retain in one day. We met lots of new people and tried to learn the names attached to them, and we were exposed to the alphabet soup of abbreviations in DC (as one person commented, it’s lots of “TLA’s” – i.e., three-letter acronyms). The day ended with a nice long chat with my mentors (Beth Cunningham and Jack Hehn) about all the opportunities and possibilities I have for the summer. It’s overwhelming how much there is to do!

And so, after receiving lots of information, I’ve spent most of this week going back to square one. My main project is to develop advocacy strategies and resources for the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), and I quickly realized the most basic resource someone would need is a sort of “Advocacy 101” to learn how to advocate well. Additionally, working on it allowed me to organize my own thoughts and think through the steps I’ll need to take to create other resources as well as figure out what resources are needed.

That’s not to say this week was without lots of excitement too! Orientation included lunch with Dr. John Mather, a Nobel laureate. The next day came with a full House committee hearing on a proposal to reorganize federal STEM education programs (a good summary of the hearing is onScienceInsider from AAAS). We watched a webcast of the hearing, and it was intriguing to see what questions each committee member asked as well as how members from both sides of the aisle were critical of the plan. Thursday we went to a poster session by the Einstein fellows, a select group of K-12 STEM educators who spent a year working in DC. Besides taking photos with Einstein, I had a good time talking to the fellows. A few even had connections with my high school, and they all had really interesting experiences. I’m planning on scheduling lunches with a few of the fellows to learn more.

With the first week coming to a close, I’m looking forward to all the other crazy weeks coming up. It’s going to be a busy summer, but I already know I’m going to love every minute of it.




Christine O'Donnell

I am a graduate student at University of Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership & Public Policy working towards a Master of Public Policy (expected May 2014). This spring, I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts in Astronomy/Physics from U.Va. During my undergraduate career, I worked on a wide range of research projects ranging from exoplanets to efficient target selection techniques. I presented my research at several conferences, including the American Astronomical Society 221st Meeting and Virginia Academy of Sciences May Meeting. I am also collaborating with a U.Va. astronomy professor on an introductory cosmology textbook. Finally, I have been a teaching assistant for introductory physics courses.

Through all of my experiences, I have become particularly interested in communicating and teaching science effectively, and my current policy interest is in science education. I aim to gain more experience in the field this summer with my internship at the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT)!

View Christine's Presentation

final presentation

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