Adopt-a-Physicist Connects Members with High School Classes

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Adopt-a-Physicist Connects Members with High School Classes


Müge Karagöz, Contributing Editor and Past Assistant Director of Sigma Pi Sigma

Adopt-a-Physicist is a Sigma Pi Sigma program that connects high school physics and astronomy students with professionals who majored in those fields. The professionals have a wide range of careers, backgrounds, interests, and educational levels and are eager to share their stories with students. For nearly 20 years, high school students have been getting advice, learning about the fields, and finding out about different careers through the program.

When a teacher signs up a class for Adopt-a-Physicist, they browse the pool of registered professionals and select (i.e., “adopt”) up to five. Each professional has an online profile and hosts an online discussion forum. When the session commences for a three-week period each fall, classrooms engage with the host by introducing themselves and posting questions on the forum. Each professional can only be adopted by up to three classes, making in-depth, lively discussions possible.

The first iteration of Adopt-a-Physicist dates back to around 2004, and the first session to use online forums took place in fall 2006. The forums are hosted on the ComPADRE Digital Library, built and still maintained by Lyle Barbato, the ComPADRE technical lead at the American Association of Physics Teachers. With Barbato as a constant cornerstone of the program and the aid of committed and experienced moderators, the program has thrived for nearly two decades.

In the fall 2023 session of Adopt-a-Physicist, about 70 teachers registered classes and 160 professionals were adopted. About 5,000 messages were posted during the three-week session!

For many physics and astronomy professionals, participating in the program has become a tradition. Ten have participated in 15 or more sessions. Don Lincoln, a Sigma Pi Sigma member since 1985, is one of them. A particle physicist and senior scientist at Fermilab, Lincoln appreciates the human connection the program offers students. “History books portray scientists as lofty geniuses whose achievements transcend the abilities of ordinary humans. By talking to practicing researchers, the students can come to see scientists as ordinary humans—people who can shed light on what it is to be a scientist and what one must do to become one,” he says. 

For many students, that human connection breaks barriers and fosters encouragement. "I've seen just as many questions about physicists' hobbies and noncareer interests as about their careers, and I think those questions help students connect to their physicists,” Barbato says when reflecting on his 18 years with the program.

Adopt-a-Physicist also creates opportunities for students to learn science directly from the experts. Virginia Trimble, a Sigma Pi Sigma member since 1993 and Honorary Member since 2014, is an astronomer and professor at the University of California, Irvine. During the fall 2023 session, a student asked her for a clear, simple explanation of time dilation. Trimble made sure her answer was correct and comprehensible. She started by asking the student to pretend he was a muon that had been created by a cosmic ray hitting the earth’s upper atmosphere, and then asked him to think about his journey to the surface of the earth. Such personalized answers can resonate with students much more than a textbook description. 

Alongside experienced participants like Lincoln and Trimble, the fall 2023 session saw a number of enthusiastic new Adopt-a-Physicist volunteers. In participating, they carry on Sigma Pi Sigma's tradition of serving the community, encouraging interest in physics and astronomy, and aiding in the career progression of younger generations.  

Adopt-a-Physicist is a program of Sigma Pi Sigma supported by the American Institute of Physics in collaboration with the American Association of Physics Teachers and ComPADRE.

Learn more about Adopt-a-Physicist at



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