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SJU Society of Physics Students Wins Prestigious Blake Lilly Prize

Rachel Tyo and Charles Fortmann
Thursday, October 26, 2017

When she became President of the Society of Physics Students (SPS) chapter at St. John’s University in her junior year, Rachel Tyo ‘18C wanted to provide “more ways for students to enjoy physics.” Since then, she has worked ceaselessly toward that goal, and her efforts have resulted in the chapter receiving the 2016-2017 Blake Lilly Prize from the national SPS. “Rachel is like the Energizer Bunny,” said Associate Professor Charles Fortmann, Ph.D., who serves as faculty advisor to the SPS chapter. “She never stops.”

The Blake Lilly Prize recognizes SPS chapters who make significant physics outreach efforts to school children and the public. Winners receive a certificate of recognition and the three-volume set of The Feynman Lectures on Physics by Nobel laureate Richard P. Feynman, who is also known as “The Great Explainer.” Tyo, Dr. Fortmann, and the SJU SPS have been recognized for their collaboration with St. John’s Women in Science program to host an event for 29 young women from four local middle schools that took place on the Queens campus on March 11, 2017. SPS students led the middle school girls in hands-on experiments related to ray tracing, how lenses work, and how to find the focal point of a lens.

Arduino starter kit

SJU’s chapter of Sigma Pi Sigma, the National Physics Honor Society, which is part of SPS, also won a $500 Chapter Award from the national organization for inviting high school students to attend its induction ceremony and participate in a competition to build solar ovens. The St. John’s students invited physics alumni to share their graduate school experiences at the event and “demystify grad school” for current undergraduate and high school students, according to Tyo.

At St. John’s Accepted Student Day in 2017, SPS won a $1,000 “Most Original Table” prize from the University that allowed the chapter to purchase Arduino starter kits for electrical engineering activities. Tyo and Dr. Fortmann have established SPS meetings each Monday for electronics and programming activities that include building circuits featuring the Arduino kits. They have also established “Fun Lab Fridays,” during which Dr. Fortmann leads physics experiments that appeal to a wide range of majors. Of the 15-20 students who attend each event, many are Physics, Mathematical Physics, and Physical Science majors, but some come from majors like Chemistry, Legal Studies, and English.

SPS students working on an experiment during "Fun Lab Friday."

Tyo is planning additional robotics programming for spring 2018, as well as an SPS speaker series. She plans to attend graduate school for electrical engineering once she graduates with her B.S. in Physics, minoring in Environmental Studies and Mathematics. The Blake Lilly Prize, she says, would help continue her efforts on behalf of SPS to retain students in physics majors and “establish a name for the SJU chapter.”

Dr. Fortmann agreed. “It helps to shape the identity of the Physics Department. We’re not all Sheldon Coopers,” he said, referring to an idiosyncratic character from The Big Bang Theory television show.

“Congratulation to our physics students,” said Physics Chair and Professor Mostafa Sadoqi, Ph.D. “They reflect well on the department and the University, and we are proud of them.”