On Compass

Which, from this description, sounds like a cool project:

So, what is Compass? At its core, The Compass Project is a program whose goal is to address all of these problems, both on the undergraduate and graduate level, with the ultimate aim of strengthening the physical sciences at Berkeley (I admit, we are a little bit ambitious). Central to our work is a two-week summer program for incoming Berkeley freshmen who are interested in the physical sciences (targeted at women and underrepresented minorities). The summer program addresses many of the issues I outlined above:

  1. By bringing together a set of 15-20 incoming freshmen for an intense two-week education experience, Compass starts the process of forming the network of peer interaction and support that doesn’t form during the intro physics sequence.
  2. Compass’s teaching methodology focuses very heavily on collaborative learning and group work. The Compass instructors (who are all grad students – more on this later), act more as guides helping the students answer a realistic physical question (for our pilot year, the question was “What do earthquakes tell us about the interior of the Earth?”), rather than an authoritarian source of all knowledge. We focus on building problem-solving and model-building skills in our students, which are skills not explicitly address in traditional physics classes.
  3. Compass introduces these students to the physics department very quickly. Through interaction with the Compass grad students, the Compass undergrads learn that physicists are real people, with real problems and real struggles, just like them. They get the message that they are valued members of the physics community as soon as they arrive on campus, and many of them choose to self-identify as physics majors before their first semester is done. We hope that as Compass grows, this sense of ownership will lead future Compass students to act as nuclei in their intro classes around which potential majors who were not in Compass can aggregate.
  4. The curriculum for the summer program is developed and implemented entirely by grad students. This means that Compass provides a tremendous opportunity for grad students involved in the program to hone their teaching skills in ways that simply aren’t possible without that level of freedom and control. Additionally, Compass provides a space where a passion for teaching is actually valued and encouraged, and therefore serves as a seed for the creation of a community of grad students. For many (including me!), the friendships formed through that community are invaluable for actually making it through grad school.

As though the summer program didn’t already keep us all busy, Compass also has several components that extend throughout the academic year, with the goal of supporting the Compass undergrads throughout their academic careers. Among those are (1) a mentorship program that pairs each Compass undergrad with a grad student to help them navigate the challenges of college, (2) a set of office hours, staffed by grad students and upperclassmen, to provide Compass students with academic help, (3) a lecture series where physics faculty describe their research at an undergrad level (this has been well-attended by Compass and non-Compass undergrads alike), and (4) pure social activities. So, yes, our goals are ambitious, but so are our methods for achieving those goals.

So, how can you help support this fantastic program? As I alluded to earlier, Compass was founded quite recently (our second summer program is happening this August!), and is entirely run by physics grad students. Right now, the main problem that Compass is facing at Berkeley is a lack of financial support (apparently times are tough in Sacramento as well as in DC), so we are trying to get the word out about our existence and the good work we are trying to do. So, if you think our program is worth supporting, spread the word! Tell your friends in important places about us, let us know if you are interested in hearing more or helping out, and, if you are able, donate some money to Compass. Every bit of help we can get is vital to keep this program going.

And if you happen to be a grad student at some school, and you happen to feel frustrated about these issues too, don’t despair. Consider starting a program similar to Compass at your school (and by all means, tell us about it). You’d be surprised how many good things your frustration can create.

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