New College physics students win national award

By Ann Comer-Woods and Megan Delehanty

New College’s chapter of the Society of Physics Students has won an Outstanding Chapter Award from the SPS National Office, recognizing its excellence as a top-tier student-led physical sciences organization. Fewer than 15 percent of all SPS chapters receive the designation.

Physics students Matt Mancini, left, and Alex Sturzu, right, work with Professor of Physics Mariana Sendova in her lab.
Physics students Matt Mancini, left, and Alex Sturzu, right, work with Professor of Physics Mariana Sendova in her lab.

SPS is a professional association for students and membership is open to anyone interested in physics and related fields. SPS operates within the American Institute of Physics (AIP), an umbrella organization for professional physical science societies.

The New College chapter, and its related chapter of Sigma Pi Sigma, the national physics honor society, were founded last year. (See interview below.)

“This recognition is a high honor for New College of Florida and helps reaffirm our college’s academic commitment to physics and mathematics particularly,” said NCF chapter president Matt Mancini. “I am proud to be a part of such a motivated community of students and faculty. The dedication and passion for physics has become contagious and has allowed for the development of a true ‘physics phamily’ in our SPS chapter.”

SPS chapters are evaluated on their level of interaction with the campus community, the professional physics community, the public, and with SPS national programs. The Outstanding Chapter Award recognizes high levels of outreach as well as unique approaches to fulfilling the mission of SPS to “help students transform themselves into contributing members of the professional community.”

The NCF SPS chapter was recognized as outstanding for its efforts in community outreach both on campus and off for efforts that included:

  • Visiting Sarasota High School to conduct demos as well as Q&A on University Physics
  • Increasing workshops and TA availability in Physics
  • Working with faculty to have offered a new course, Materials Characterization Techniques, that helps develop hard skills for students seeking professional paths 

The SPS chapter at New College of Florida is advised by Professor of Physics Donald Colladay and is led by student officers. The 2019-20 officers are: Matthew Mancini, president; Sarah Gonzalez, vice president; Alexandru Sturzu, treasurer; and Alexandra Hinton, secretary.

Interview with Matt Mancini

Megan Delehanty, a student writer for the Office of Communications and Marketing, recently interviewed Matt Mancini about the New College chapters of the Society of Physics Students and Sigma Pi Sigma.  

Mancini is a fourth-year physics student at New College. He talks about the chapters’ formation, how it has fostered a sense of community among physics students, and encouraged young physics students in the Sarasota community. 

How does it feel to be a part of the first Greek Life organization at New College?

I never really think about us as a ‘Greek Life’ organization…  Sigma Pi Sigma focuses itself on community outreach and academic excellence surrounding physics. If we are any sort of Greek Life organization, we would be the “Revenge of The Nerds” kind.

In general, I think of us as the first National Honors Society on campus, and in that regard I am very proud. I believe our students work hard and deserve national recognition and awards such as Sigma Pi Sigma membership. I also believe this helps to reinforce the rigor of programs such as physics on the New College campus.

It also helps us to develop community on campus and to improve the student to student relationships within our Physics department. I know myself, my colleagues, and physics faculty have all noticed a significant positive change in department camaraderie.  

Who can join the organization?

Anyone can join the Society of Physics Students, and for this reason we seek annual SAC funds for unlimited chapter membership so that no student has to have financial burdens prevent them from joining the club. The founding officers (Alex Sturzu, Colton Fitzjarrald and I) felt this was the proper move to allow for greater inclusion of students of varying backgrounds. I am a huge proponent that diverse opinions are what help strengthen our character, inform our opinions, and ultimately push us forward. 

As for Sigma Pi Sigma, this is slightly different. All students who are either in their third or fourth year of enrollment, who have completed three semesters of coursework in physics, and who have shown academic excellence in at least two upper level physics courses is automatically nominated for induction into Sigma Pi Sigma by the faculty advisor, Dr. Donald Colladay, and the student can then decide to pursue this or not. 

What do members do?

Study physics, help others study physics, explain misconceptions about physics, reach out to young kids to get them involved in physics, try to expand the availability of opportunity to all youth communities interested in physics. Community outreach and engagement is a pillar of Sigma Pi Sigma. We also like to show and inform communities about the opportunities that hard work in physics provides such as paid schooling.  

What kind of outreach do you do? 

Alex Sturzu and I went last year to Sarasota High School and engaged with five of their physics classes. However, we are working right now to construct a series of talks to host interested kids from all community schools in Chae Auditorium and talk to them about opportunities in physics and how we can use physics to improve the world and community around us. 

What do you do when you go to the high schools? Is it just demonstrations or do you have little mini lectures?

We showed demonstrations of the geometric patterns that result from the interaction of acoustic and optical waves (cymatics) via lasers and a speaker with a duct taped mirror and we also demonstrated Michelson-Morley interferometry to help prompt a discussion about LIGO. We spent about half our time with each class on these demos and the remaining time was spent on questions and answers from students. We are hoping to have a more engaging series of mini lectures that makes use of demos which we can invite students and the community into for the Spring semester. 

What are the students like? 

Incredibly engaged! Alex and I were blown away by the excitement from these students. Many were unaware of New College and had no idea that the cost of tuition at NCF made college a realistic opportunity for them. Seeing the realization of that door opening for someone is beyond energizing, and to me that’s exactly what SPS is about.

 Are the students interested in what you all have to say?

Absolutely! Some students prepared questions in advance because they were so excited. We fielded many questions about what it’s like to study physics at university, what are black holes made of, how can we detect gravitational waves, how do radio stations send so much information through the air, et cetera.

The discussions we had were absolutely wonderful. The kids were thoroughly engaged and we were able to answer some great questions and show the advantages of nontraditional NCF education through the strength of the soft skills we had developed with the frequency of presentations in our physics department.

Ann Comer-Woods is Director of Communications and Marketing for New College of Florida. Megan Delehanty is a student writer for the Office of Communications and Marketing.

Located in Sarasota, New College of Florida has educated intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement since its founding in 1960. As the State of Florida’s designated honors college, New College provides an exceptional education that transforms students’ intellectual curiosity into personal accomplishment. The 110-acre campus on Sarasota Bay is home to more than 700 students and 80 full-time faculty engaged in interdisciplinary research and collaborative learning. New College offers nearly 40 areas of concentration for undergraduates and a master’s degree program in Data Science.

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