Faculty mentorship is widely seen as an important factor in a successful undergraduate education. A recent 2018 Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey, “Mentoring College Students To Success” shows that successful faculty mentorship is critical in encouraging students to pursue their careers and dreams. Yet, only 64 percent of students had a mentor and the number is less for underrepresented groups. As faculty, how can we connect to students outside the classroom beyond merely hoping they show up to office hours?
In our physics department at Adelphi University (AU), the “secret sauce” has been to activate our award-winning physics club. By getting involved in physics club, students are (often unknowingly) building their own safety net through a connection to the department and informal mentorship by their peers and faculty. Joining the club also provides two other advantages. It allows them to create their own environment where they define success, and it gives access to additional resources, such as funds to go to conferences and for scholarships. Physics Club Vice President Zafir Momin said at a recent meeting, “Physics Club is the only reason I’m still here. I have become something other than just a student.”
A current trend in parenting tells people to stop asking kids “…what they want to be when they grow up but what problems do they want to solve.” The departmental club is a structure that allows for innovation at the student level. In an age of active learning, this is exactly the kind of thing we want our students doing: innovating, thinking for themselves, and learning outside of the structure of the stuffy classrooms.
Students can use the club to work in teams to design projects of their own creation. For example, our physics club tackled a four week long workshop on building a robot. The officers in the club determined the project, bought and tested the equipment, developed a plan to teach their peers, and launched the workshops. We want to encourage peer-instruction in the academy; in department clubs, it’s already here and is entirely organic.
Whether we are doing an egg drop competition, building a robot, or out for our annual archery night, the students and the faculty are interacting. It gives me the perfect opportunity to chat with the students in small groups or one-on-one. When student problems or issues come up, I can address them in an informal manner and without making a big deal about it. Conversely, when I have called students into my office to discuss similar types of physics problems, their anxiety is often through the roof. Keeping stress low tends to keep attrition rates low, too.
In addition, women in physics seem to strive for leadership roles in our physics club. Right now, about 25 percent of our physics majors are women, though it does creep up to 35 percent from time to time. (This is an undesirable disproportionality, but it’s better than the national average, which sits around 20 percent.) Yet, of our six leadership positions in our physics club, four are women. This has not been an isolated incident; women have made up a large fraction of the physics club leadership for the last few years, (64 percent over the last four years). And it’s not just at Adelphi University where this is occurring. It’s become common for me to visit another institution and find the president of the physics club is a woman.
Tips for getting started
Launching a successful departmental club is not without challenges. There are four groups you need to work with: the university club management organization, your department, the national club office, and, of course, students. The key is to listen to all parties. Each will have a list of requirements. At first, these requirements will seem like they are going to get in the way. Allow the students to set the agenda. Simply ask them what they want to do and have them develop events that fit into your budget (it doesn’t take much money). You may need to do some “packaging” of your events so they fulfill national club and university requirements. For example, our university club management organization has lots of requirements for interclub activities and volunteer work. We tweak the events so that they fit the model activities without getting too far away from the core mission: the students.
The national office is very important. For us, it is the Society of Physics Students. They provide small grants to support outreach activities and club events and offer helpful instructional tools, such as their career toolkit—a step-by-step guide designed to help students transition from college to the professional world. They also hold national conferences specifically tailored for undergraduate physics students. We tap into their resources whenever we can. A $300 grant may seem small and insignificant, but they add up over time. Each one supports another student opportunity for growth and learning.
Existing student efforts in a department are often understated or undervalued. For many departments, especially those that do not have graduate students, the undergraduates are the reason the department exists. So, come “join the club” to help reach those students.
Matthew Wright is associate professor and chair of the physics department at Adelphi University in New York.