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.

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs