July 2020: Sylvester James Gates Jr.

Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island

Sylvester James Gates Jr.

  • Member since 1999
  • Ford Foundation Professor of Physics
  • Providence, Rhode Island

About Sylvester

SSTPRS: An Adventure in Teaching Physics & Engaging Authentic Theoretical Physics Research by Precocious Students

I never dreamt I would have 22 students in a “summer class” where there are three Brown University undergraduates, three Caltech undergraduates, three students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, one in Abu Dhabi, one a recent B. S graduate who just finished his degree program at Pepperdine University, and the remainder are undergraduates from the University of Maryland. But these are the young students I have been engaging since the first week of June. Of course, this is possible due to the technological platform we use…Zoom.

How in the world did this happen? Let’s go back to the beginning, at least as it is relevant to this story.

During the summer of 1999, my colleague, collaborator, and friend Prof. Vincent Rodgers (a member of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Iowa) came for a visit to College Park. This was not unusual as we were collaborating a lot in those times on joint research papers related to the topics of supersymmetry and string theory. That summer, he was accompanied by one of his graduate students, Takeshi Yasuda, and a student named Carina Curto. Carina was an undergraduate at Harvard but had gone to high school in Iowa City, where Vincent had been her mentor. Her dad was Vincent’s dean, Prof. Raul Curto (Mathematics)!  

So at first I was mystified as to why she was there? After all, our focus was research usually carried out among faculty, postdoctoral students, and graduate students. By the end of the visit of this crew from Iowa, I had learned a very valuable pedagogical lesson. Undergraduate students, when properly on-boarded, could productively become involved in the realms of research we theoretical physicists typically regard as an impossibility. By the way, Carina is now a mathematically enabled “neuro-physicist.”


By the end of the summer I was intrigued enough with the positive outcome all the way round that I became interested to answer the question as to how this success occurred. Was it some special property of Carina’s or perhaps her being an undergraduate at Harvard? So I decided to find out by seeing if this experience could be replicated with other undergraduate students. Thus was born the Summer Student Theoretical Physics Research Session (SSTPRS – an unpronounceable acronym).

Via SSTPRS I leapt into the world of authentic undergraduate research in the mathematics that is wrapped within supersymmetry and superstring theory. Essentially every summer since that time, SSTPRS has occurred either on the campus of the University of Maryland or the University of Iowa. Starting in 2017 as I moved to Brown University, the SSTPRS editions have occurred on that campus. Up to the current time, SSTPRS has been a vehicle by which undergraduate students have become (usually for about a duration of a year) members of my research group. I have also used it as a way to on-board graduate students into my research activities. Furthermore, from time to time, very bright and precocious high school students became part of a summer experience. Thus, some of my coauthors were in high school when publications were completed.

As a benefit for these students, when they apply to graduate school (undergraduate programs in a few cases) they will generally have at least one publication in a refereed journal to their credit. This answers a critical question that such admission processes seek, “Can this student successfully collaborate to produce research?” With SSTPRS as an enabling tool, I have interacted with over 150 such students, and about a third of this number have become my co-authors on 25 papers.

Most of our students, like Carina, do not become theoretical physicists. However, it was never the point of the program to produce string theorists. The program was designed to create mathematically enabled
researchers, who (as Carina has stated) “think like physicists.” Of course, some SSTPRS alums do become professors, such as Christine Zelano of the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern, Antonio Boveia of the Department of Physics at Ohio State, and Leo Rodriguez of the Department of Physics at Grinnell College. But at least one alumnus, Prof. Ibrahima Bah of Johns Hopkins, actually is a string theorist.

Like the original SSTPRS inception, SSTPRS-streaming is an experiment. What has been fascinating to me is there appear to be paradigms in this new venue for modes of teaching and learning that simply are impossible to engineer in a F2F (face-to-face) classroom. My students and I this summer have been experimenting with this and since SSTPRS has never been conventional I am still attempting to figure out metrics to measure the effectiveness of this experiment. One (but not the only) metric the program has always used is whether in approximately six to eight months out, essentially autonomous teams of these students will have successfully completed a series of calculations usually only done by graduate students or individuals with far more experience and training.

For me, this has a slight feeling of deja vu. But it is easy for me to deduce why this is happening.

I have in a sense been thinking about this since 2012, when, as a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST) during the Obama administration and part of a group, I was tasked to assess what were then called MOOCs, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massive_open_online_course, for the White House. At the time, essentially all of the ones we studied did not seem to have great prospects for long-term viability. So our report indicated to the Executive Office of the President that it was premature for the government to invest in the technology. However, there was one exception that really caught my eye. I said so in the New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/18/education/masters-degree-is-new-frontier-of-study-online.html , and in the years since, it has exploded with success.

From that experience, I thought, "Hmm, better keep thinking about this." So when the pandemic hit, I was ready with a whole bag of tricks I developed just after 2012 and my PCAST experience with MOOCs. This summer I am experimenting even more.

I am starting to get the same sort of feeling from what is going on in the SSTPRS-streaming engagement this summer that I felt about the Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) program at Georgia Tech in 2012. More than ever, I believe the online classroom holds possibilities that are not just equivalent to a F2F class, but much more interactive and fluid in the service of teaching and, more importantly, learning. When classes resume in the fall, I have indicated I will continue to use an online platform to deliver educational content. Perhaps, we will find that the promise of MOOCs just took a bit longer to realize than many thought and requires moving past them.

Finally, does this mean something really “Big” is possible for education in all realms of the future? Honestly, I do not know, but such possibilities should not be ignored.