SPENCER HULSEY: Spreading the Spark of Curiosity
Pictured above: Illinois Physics alumna Spencer Hulsey poses for a photo on the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse campus, where she works as the STEM outreach program coordinator. Photo by Michael Lieurance, UW-La Crosse.
for Illinois Physics
In her career, Spencer Hulsey shares the excitement of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) with Wisconsin residents, especially with young people. It’s her dream job, a position she has unofficially been training for since she first came to Illinois Physics as an undergraduate.
In fact, you could say the initial spark that led Spencer to her career happened even before that, when she was a high schooler visiting the University of Illinois campus in Urbana to participate in the Worldwide Youth in Science & Engineering (WYSE) Academic Challenge in the biology category. WYSE is a competitive series of regional-, sectional-, and state-level tests, created at the University of Illinois for high schoolers, now run by Eastern Illinois University.
During the WYSE lunch break, Hulsey sat in on a lecture by Illinois Physics Professor Mats Selen, an experience she credits with first igniting her love of physics.
Hulsey says the wonder and excitement she felt that day watching Selen illustrate the law of conservation of energy via a bowling ball pendulum kickstarted her on the path to becoming a STEM advocate—someone who can light that same spark of interest and wonder in others.
“Finding something that excites you is a valuable part of the human experience,” Hulsey shares. “For me, this meant finding understanding in the phenomena that define our lives. When I look up at night, I find comfort in knowing what stars are and how they work. More importantly, I find purpose in the questions that remain.”
That excitement in learning physics stayed with Hulsey throughout her undergraduate program at Illinois Physics. In fact, she was known for leaving a trail of smiles in her wake wherever she went. And sometimes where she went was to local grade schools, with the Physics Van.
Hulsey served as a volunteer coordinator for the student outreach group from her freshman to her senior year. Taking part in engaging youth with a fun and literally explosive (referring to soap suds) traveling science show fed Hulsey’s need to spread the spark of curiosity about physics. She loved the show’s many flashy demonstrations that challenged kids’ understanding and showed them what science is all about.
Still spreading that spark of curiosity
After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in physics in May 2020, Hulsey followed her passion for STEM outreach into a career that benefits Wisconsin youth. Now a STEM outreach program coordinator for the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UWL), she spends her days helping plan and organize events and programs aimed at inspiring and mentoring the next generation of scientists and mathematicians.
Hulsey’s outreach efforts extend beyond the UWL campus and its students. Her work centers on creating engaging and accessible learning opportunities for all interested age groups in the region.
“Our department facilitates many different activities for lots of audiences,” she notes. “This spring semester, we put on a Science and Math Expo and a Kid’s College—two really fun examples of the opportunities we offer.
“The Science and Math Expo is a huge science fair attended by about 300 students from up to 14 different middle schools. The students present their research posters, answering questions you never knew you had, like, ‘How does parachute shape affect fall time?’ or, ‘Does refrigerating batteries make them last longer?’”
In another effort, Hulsey recently proposed a program that will involve all University of Wisconsin schools. It’s an academic STEM-test competition for high schoolers, and the prizes are UW scholarships. Hulsey recently received word that the University of Wisconsin System will move forward with her plan.
“This program is actually a partnership with 50-plus Illinois colleges, on a program that UIUC used to run, called WYSE. I did it in high school—it was part of why I chose to attend Illinois. I reached out to EIU’s delegate—the U of I handed off the program to EIU in 2018 or so—and we partnered to build the program anew in a new state! The other UW campuses seem excited to start it up next year. We renamed it WYTS—Wisconsin Youth Testing in the Sciences—and it is the first youth program that all our schools have worked together on!”
Hulsey is also a regular guest on the WIZM 92.7 La Crosse Radio Show every third Thursday from 5:00–6:00 p.m. She talks about upcoming outreach events and summer camps, UW-La Crosse science, and other current science topics, such as DNA found on meteorites or the recent black hole image produced by the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration.
“That was fun because I got to talk about knowing some of the professors who worked on the black hole photos!” Hulsey beams.
Of course, creating the opportunity to ignite curiosity takes some planning and ingenuity.
Hulsey notes, “My day-to-day work involves a lot of what goes on behind the scenes—budgeting, contracting, setting up registration, and finding resources to fill in the gaps. But I’m also doing my best to introduce even more physics when I can. UWL doesn’t currently have a student-led outreach program, so I’m working to change that with the help of the physics student club on campus.”
Always an Illini
Hulsey’s career has taken her far from the UIUC campus, but she remains invested in her University of Illinois community.
“I’m still quite close with many of the physics majors I graduated with, and I connect with my former professors from time to time with questions about outreach and teaching strategies. For me, Illinois Physics is and always will be a home. I found my people there, and though we’ve now gone on to make our own careers, we’re all still connected by the memories we share.”
As the student who in late 2019 proposed the belted kingfisher bird be adopted as UIUC’s mascot, Spencer has also maintained her involvement in the mascot-adoption process since graduating. Since 2019, she has worked closely with the student body, the alumni network, and a chancellor-appointed committee. Spencer’s kingfisher design was first shared with the UIUC community on Reddit, where it received tremendous initial support. It later passed both a student vote and a faculty senate vote.
Where does that proposal stand now? The kingfisher is still under consideration. With so many in the broader UIUC community having strong feelings about the historical UIUC mascot, Chancellor Robert Jones charged his Building New Traditions Working Group of the Native American Representation and Reciprocity Initiative to “develop a framework for introducing new traditions to the university community,” which “may include considerations of a new mascot.” The steering committee’s report with the working group’s recommendations has been sent to the Chancellor for his consideration. Hulsey says a decision is anticipated by Spring 2024, and she is glad her kingfisher is still in the running.
In the meantime, Hulsey is working to strengthen her network up in Wisconsin, doing work that isn’t so far afield from her undergraduate experiences.
“I’m still traveling around to local schools like I did with Physics Van, but this time I’m meeting with the teachers, rather than students, to help them to either start their own after-school outreach events with the support of UWL staff or to participate in the events offered on our campus,” she says. “A STEM outreach program coordinator is a representative of STEM itself, and STEM outreach is all about discovering and sharing knowledge with others—hard earned and often very niche knowledge, but knowledge nonetheless. My job is to inspire others to share whatever inspires them.”
Giving back to student outreach efforts at Illinois
Hulsey is among the ≈34 former Physics Van coordinators who set up a new student outreach scholarship fund at Illinois Physics, in honor of the official retirement of Selen, the Physics Van’s founder. The group crowd-sourced donations and solicited donations from businesses and have exceeded their initial fundraising goal of $25K, with donations still coming in. As of publication of this magazine, the fund had reached about $35,000.
“Tamara McArdle and Matthew Wenger spearheaded the effort with the University of Illinois Foundation, and I did some leg work soliciting donations from friends, professors, alumni, and Physics Van alumni and I designed the plaque for Mats with all the coordinators’ signatures on it.
“All the other former coordinators donated and likely reached out to the alumni that they worked with during their time with the Physics Van. I would guess a majority of the donations came from current physics professors and former students of Mats. Celia Elliott has been helping us out as well, keeping us up to date on the goings-on in Loomis. It’s really been a sizable effort."
The Mats Selen Outreach Achievement Award will support an annual award in the Department of Physics for students who have participated in physics outreach programs.