Campus & Community

Physics Students Aim for the Stars, Learn Crucial Skills for a Thriving Career

The Society of Physics Students (SPS) cultivates a community with a shared passion while helping students develop leadership and communication skills

photo of people camping under the stars

What if spending an evening under the stars exploring the heavens in high definition was just as an important part of your college experience as your actual time in the classroom? What if a camping trip could offer an opportunity to learn valuable skills for your job? That’s exactly what Jacob Kosowski, former president of the Stevens chapter Society of Physics Students (SPS), and other members of SPS look forward to every year.

Arguably the most anticipated event of the SPS, the annual camping trip offers students a unique opportunity to enjoy reprieve from the rigors of both college and city life. This peer bonding and meaningful life experience leaves lasting impressions on the students who participate.

“We went to Kittatinny Valley State Park to view the night sky. We hiked, learned how to use advanced telescopes, and looked at the stars and planets,” said Leigha Capra, a mechanical engineering major with a minor in physics expected to graduate 2023. “It was the first time I had ever seen such vivid pictures outside of textbooks! Overall, the experience was incredibly enriching and a great experience for everyone.”

“The club is fortunate enough to own a pretty nice telescope, which I spend the night operating, looking for objects to show to everyone. It is just such a fun experience and one that I will surely miss,” recalled Kosowski, who graduated in 2020. “It gives us all a chance to just relax, hang out with friends, and enjoy some time away from the city.”

While the camping trip does provide students with a mental break, the experience offers more than just surface-level fun. When students witness for themselves the vastness of the night sky, they recognize that the concepts and theories they learn in class apply to an actual, physical universe. This experiential activity allows them to experience themselves as part of that universe. This profound realization can lead to epiphanies that change the texture of their professional contributions, both in their education and in their future careers.

Kosowski is now a virtual intern at the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS) in Heidelberg, Germany. Working as part of the Theory and Observations of Stars (TOS) group led by Dr. Saskia Hekker, Kosowski uses a comprehensive stellar modeling program called MESA to simulate stars of various masses and metallicities. He attributes his time at Stevens–and his experience in SPS–as a factor in his post-graduate success.

“The initial draw was pretty straightforward: as a freshman physics major, I wanted to be a part of the physics community at Stevens,” Kosowski said, describing what inspired him to join the club. “However, I stayed because the people I met were incredibly welcoming and just wanted to share their passion for physics with others.”

Capra shared a similar sentiment. “I was excited for the opportunity to explore my interests in space and astronomy, while also learning more about the physics community.”

Professional skills and career support

The SPS at Stevens Institute of Technology offers students ample opportunities–like the camping trip–for community building, interpersonal support, and network development. Open to any student interested in physics, the Stevens chapter was recognized by the organization as a 2020 Distinguished Chapter.

“While the club's focus is on a community of physics fun and discussion, we did offer resources to help students with their career both in and out of Stevens. I honed many valuable skills during my time on the SPS eboard, not the least of which being group organization, the mediation of discussion, and the importance of task delegation and good management,” Kosowski said. “Additionally, I had to be able to properly express myself in both the eboard meetings and the General Body Meetings (GBMs) in order to be an effective leader. This skill in particular has proven to be quite useful in my current internship. While I am not leading a group, it is important for me to be able to confidently present my work to my colleagues in a way that is both complete and comprehensible.”

Clubs like SPS provide additional support to help students develop into valuable members of their professional community.

“SPS encouraged me to get involved with research projects on campus,” Capra said. “I saw a lot of the upperclassmen present their work and heard them talk about their positive experiences.”

The club imparts practical wisdom, too. The process of finding and applying for internships can feel overwhelming to many students, and the SPS supports students by demystifying the process. “We dedicated one of our GBMs to a discussion on summer research internships: where you can apply, what do you do, etc.,” Kosowski said. “Additionally, upperclassmen who have already completed summer research were there to share their experiences.”

In effect, the SPS gives students studying physics opportunities to hone and refine their raw knowledge, so they can not merely survive professionally, but thrive.

Strong faculty involvement and support

One of the extended benefits of participating in the SPS is increased interaction with faculty outside of the classroom setting, providing ample opportunities for students to learn from their mentors in a more relaxed environment. The club empowers students to go beyond theory into practical application, community involvement, and collaborative communication.

“We host a faculty meet-and-greet, as well as engage in regular town hall meetings with the physics department,” Capra said. “SPS encourages interaction between the physics faculty and the student body.”

Students often discover that faculty go above and beyond, offering their support to make the club experience both meaningful and enriching.

“We implemented larger events that would not have been nearly as successful without help from the physics department faculty,” Kosowski said. “The main example would be our Physics Meet and Mingle. The idea of the event was to host a dinner/networking event for all of the physics faculty and current physics majors. Without the support of the faculty both financially and in their participation, this event would have been impossible to pull off.”

These more intimate engagements allow faculty to clarify some of the more practical aspects of students’ educational experience and degree trajectory. “Every semester, SPS hosts a scheduling colloquium with Professor Christopher Search. This provides a way for physics students to understand not only what their degree requires of them, but what electives are available to them,” Kosowski said.

Interactive events and activities

The SPS hosts several events and GBMs throughout the year. In addition to being a good time, these events solidify bonds among club members. Students learn the intrinsic value of collaborating in groups with mutually shared interests—and that the best innovation doesn’t happen in isolation. While mingling with their peers, they are simultaneously learning to listen, engage, cooperate, and consider the perspectives of others—all skills required in order to exist in community with their professional peers.

The club hosts events like Paper Talks, Demo-Day, and participates in the Stimulate, Teach and Reveal Technology and Science (START) event organized by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE).

“What I love about these events is that it goes back to one of the reasons I enjoy SPS in the first place: the sharing of one's passion for physics. These events focused on discussions or demonstrations of physics phenomena and gave myself and other members a chance to just geek out a bit about something they find interesting,” said Kosowski.

When students come together to talk about ideas, they witness first hand how those ideas evolve when contrasted with the ideas of their peers. They learn from the upperclassmen who’ve paved their way and hear from professors who impart their own wisdom and realize that innovation does not happen in a vacuum. Each person is a valuable, important, and indispensable part of a larger community. Their ideas and contributions matter—and, even more importantly, so do the ideas and contributions of their peers. This is at the heart of true collaboration and innovation—and these are the kinds of “hard-to-teach” skills that, in the club, students learn by doing.

“I’m very proud of our chapter for working hard to organize interactive and engaging on-campus events, and during the spring semester continuing to host engaging meetings and presentation nights in a virtual setting,” said Capra.

Enrichment of the overall college experience

Ultimately, the SPS experience provides students with a sense of camaraderie and kinship, while connecting them with like-minded individuals who share a passion for physics—and for life.

“Honestly, it was just a lot of fun to be a part of and was a significant highlight of my college experience in general,” Kosowski said. “I loved my time in the club as well the people I was able to work with and lead. It is incredibly rewarding to be part of a club full of people with similar passions as you.”

While many physics majors are part of the club, the SPS is open to anyone regardless of major or background. “If you just want to hang out with like-minded students, stop by the GBMs and the events such as GraviTea,” Kosowski recommended. “If you are interested in participating in discussions on a variety of fascinating physics topics, check out the Paper Talks and our trips to local museums and labs.”

“Everyone is incredibly welcoming and you’ll undeniably have the opportunity to be a part of activities that are both fun and engaging,” Capra said. “We try our best to make physics accessible and enjoyable for the Stevens community. Even though I am not a physics major, I still feel like it's been an enriching and fun experience for me. I’m really grateful for my time in SPS and I look forward to being a part of it for the rest of my time at Stevens.”

“SPS is quickly becoming a prominent club at Stevens,” Kosowski added. “I am very much looking forward to seeing how it evolves going forward.”

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