Physics group Blake Lilly award

Members of the Roanoke Physics Group, which includes physics students and faculty, at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in August 2017. There, the group served as Eclipse Ambassadors, helping park visitors safely view the rare Aug. 21 total solar eclipse.

By Rebecca Marsh '21

RC Society of Physics Students chapter receives national award for public outreach

Roanoke College's Society of Physics Students chapter has been awarded a 2018 Blake Lilly Prize for outstanding science public outreach and awareness. Named after and given in honor of the late Blake Lilly, a physics student at Georgia Tech in the late 1980s, each prize recipient is selected annually by members of the National Council of the Society of Physics Students.

The council considers public service, community engagement, outreach efforts and audience interaction in its selection process. The Roanoke College SPS chapter was selected as the 2018 award recipient because of the quality of its science outreach activities, and the reach and scope of the chapter's efforts.

"This is certainly the most distinctive news we've received on the national level for our program," said Dr. Matt Fleenor, associate professor of physics at Roanoke, noting that the chapter has received a "Distinguished Chapter" award two years in a row.

"One of the major factors in us receiving the [Blake Lilly] prize was due to our solar eclipse outreach in August 2017," Fleenor said. Members of the College's Physics Group, which includes SPS chapter members, served as Eclipse Ambassadors in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, helping visitors safely view the rate total solar eclipse on Aug. 21. Read more about that in the Roanoke Magazine cover story

“This kind of recognition reminds us that what happens in the Roanoke College Physics Group is excellent by national standards.”

Dr. Matt Fleenor, associate professor of physics

As prize recipients, the chapter will receive a certificate and physics books to help in public outreach efforts, Fleenor said. But "the main thing we received was encouragement and affirmation that what was done locally matters on a national level for the mission of science literacy in the U.S. and beyond. Oftentimes, it can feel insular because we get so busy and overwhelmed with what is happening in our daily lives that we forget the importance held by little decisions."

"This kind of recognition reminds us that what happens in the Roanoke College Physics Group is excellent by national standards," he said.

The Physics Group continues to conduct public service outreach at elementary schools in the Roanoke Valley, "as we seek to inspire and to activate a new group of aspiring physicists toward science service," Fleenor said.

On Jan. 18-20, five Roanoke College physics majors will attend the Undergraduate Women in Physics conference at the College of William & Mary, said Fleenor. He noted that Roanoke is above average in graduates from underrepresented groups for the fifth year in a row.

"We are also planning to add the first-ever engineering coursework to our physics curriculum next year, and that will be a big step for the physics program," Fleenor said. "Our program continues to grow in numbers and in depth, and for that we are thankful and excited."