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US Scientists Hit the Road to Make Physics Fun

When science is boring or hard to learn, people shy away from it. That's why many U.S. universities sponsor road shows staffed with educators who try to make science fun. One of the largest and best-known outreach programs is The Little Shop of Physics at Colorado State University. Founded by CSU Physics professor Brian Jones in 1991, this toyshop for scientists produces gadgets and gizmos that turn concepts like magnetism and osmosis into something kids can actually get their hands on.

"One of our key messages is that science isn't something you have to do in a fancy laboratory," Jones explains, "You don't need fancy tools. You can do scientific thinking, you can explore the world in a scientific way with stuff you can buy at a garage sale, in the hardware store, stuff you already have around the house."  He shows off a drum made from a cardboard tube, a metal spring and some weights that demonstrates why thunder rumbles. 

Dozens of CSU physics students help run the Little Shop of Physics and take their scientific wizardry on the road. Every week, they load up demonstrations in their 'physics van' and drive to local schools to explain amazing things such as why bubbles float, and how tubes of sand can power a tiny light. Each year, the Little Shop van makes science more exciting for 15,000 young students.

Other universities have similar programs. Julie Conlon, who directs a Physics-On-The-Road program at Indiana's Purdue University, says that one of her missions is encourage more kids to choose science careers.

"There is a real concern that if we don't replace scientists soon, our country's in big trouble," she says. "We want to get kids thinking about science as what they might pursue when they grow up."

Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Doug Osheroff, once said that a visit from a physics van started him on his career.

"Every time I go into a school now," Conlon says with a laugh, "I'm looking at kids saying, 'well I wonder if this could be a Nobel Prize winner!'

Because young students look up to older ones, Colorado State University's Brian Jones has his undergraduate physics students do the demonstrations. Kevin Gosselin, who created the thunder drum, says he enjoys being a role model. "I like watching them learn," he says. "You can really tell when they're really learning something. It's really cool watching that."

Jones points out that the experience also helps the undergrads. "There's no better way to realize how well you understand something than by trying to share it with someone else," he says.  

He points out that you can't explain air pressure to a 9-year-old unless you know it well enough to recognize what's important and how to make this accessible.

To help more schools make science more fun, the American Physical Research Society hosts workshops on how to do Physics on the Road. The Physics Van program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign maintains a website of worldwide outreach programs. And The Little Shop of Physics team sometimes travels internationally, to inspire budding scientists, wherever they may be.

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