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December 13, 2002

MHC Physics Students Help Middle Schoolers See the Light

Photo: Fred LeBlanc

Elizabeth Fenstermacher '04 (center) shares her excitement about physics with South Hadley sixth-graders.

Phen Suchi Saria '04 was a sixth-grader in her native India, she began doing hands-on projects in school that sparked her interest in science. The lightbulb literally went off one day for Saria when a strong electrical current was used to shatter a bulb during a class demonstration. Fascinated, she tried to tape the filament back together and to figure out how to build an unbreakable bulb. Though she was unsuccessful in that particular pursuit, little else has stood in her way as she pursues her goal of a doctorate in robotics. Thanks in part to the "strong base" she received and the applied curriculum of her early years of schooling, Saria has become a double major in physics and computer science at MHC who conducts cocurricular robotics research with computer science faculty members. Now Saria and fellow members of the College's chapter of the Society of Physics Students (SPS), with the help of MHC physics lab director Orin Hoffman, are helping to generate interest in physics among sixth-graders at South Hadley's Michael E. Smith Middle School through the same kind of hands-on science that so inspired Saria when she was their age.

On November 21 and 22, one South Hadley middle school classroom came alive with dancing green laser beams, "spear fishing" for frogs, ricocheting metal balls, and the enthusiasm of teachers and students of all ages. Hoffman, Saria, Rebecca Barlow '05, Elizabeth Fenstermacher '04, Reah Ghosh '05, and Evelyn Kapusta '05 spent the two days at the school doing, as Hoffman explained to the youngsters, "cool stuff with light." Judging by the positive response to the MHC physicists' lessons on the subject, cool stuff was also the right stuff when it came to getting kids excited about light and what it's like to study its properties.

Photo: Fred LeBlanc

Suchi Saria '04 and a middle school student "fish" for plastic frogs, an exercise that helps students learn about the distortion of light caused by refraction in water.

Having previously given the group's teachers a written curriculum relating to the experiments and concepts surrounding energy and light, the MHC scientists talked about what it was like to study physics at MHC, made hourly presentations, and oversaw interactive experiments for classes of about twenty-five students who rotated into the classroom over a four-hour period. Amid continual outbursts of "awesome" and "cool," a hand-cranked generator, a simple circuit, and a small light illustrated the transformation of mechanical energy, which students created with their arms as they cranked the machine, into light energy, as the light lit up. Later, two groups of students seemed determined and engaged as they tried to "fish" for plastic frogs in a tank of water using a "speargun" (a modified hollow pipe). Missing at first, they were successful after a laser was used to help them recognize they had to compensate for the distortion of light caused by refraction in the water. They then recalibrated the gun and hit the target.

Other students found that reaching the goal of their task was particularly sweet. They first aligned a ball launcher to hit a target by bouncing the ball off a piece of metal. This allowed them to visualize the concept of reflection using one they were familiar with (a ball bouncing). This done, the students broadened their intuitive understanding of light and mirrors by using mirrors to reflect a laser in such a way that it would hit a pile of Hershey's Kisses. The successful scientists happily devoured their prize. The pièce de résistance of the sessions was a laser light show in which dots of the laser endpoints on the wall bounced and moved to the rhythm of the music. In essence, students were able to see what they were hearing, as different notes produced different patterns. Discussion revolved around basic concepts about sound and the observation of shapes that arose from different frequencies.

By all accounts, the presentations were a success. Teacher Stein Feick thought it was "wonderful for our students to work with older students and to make connections to real-life applications of science." Eleven-year-old Donnie Hersom, who participated in an experiment that helped students begin to understand fiber-optics technology by converting his voice into laser pulses, found the presentations "lots of fun and better than learning about science from a book." Abbe Hamilton, also eleven, noted, "The concepts of lasers were kind of neat," adding that the experiments "tied together for me things we have been learning and made things more fun and easier to understand." The Mount Holyoke students were also enthusiastic about their experiences. Ghosh, admittedly a "theory person," found it "fun to break down the fear factor surrounding physics with hands-on experiments," she said. "You can explain all you want that physics is just like any other subject and you shouldn't be scared to try it," she explained. "It's doing things with the kids that are not intimidating that gets them to see that they can understand the concepts and have fun. That's when you see the light go on." Fenstermacher agreed. "This program helps demystify physics for the kids," she said. "The students were terrific and so enthusiastic. I loved working with them." Saria found that she had as much to learn from her pupils as they did from her. "These kids have taught me a lot. They have a lot of intuitive responses and cool ways of looking at things," she said.

This is the second year that Mount Holyoke SPS members have participated in an outreach program of this type with local schools. Last year, physics students, including Fenstermacher, and Hoffman worked with students at the Holyoke Magnet School. Fenstermacher, who has written a grant proposal to the national SPS to support the program, noted that it is a national initiative of the organization to do outreach. In fact, the College's SPS recently was honored by the national organization with an Outstanding Chapter Award for the outreach program conducted last year. The MHC group, which plans to start a weekly after-school physics program (highlights include a solar car competition and work with high-tech Legos) at the South Hadley middle school next semester, is also trying to secure support from local corporations that would enable the physicists to purchase equipment for the individual classrooms they visit. By doing so, the teacher would be able to run the program independently in subsequent years, extending its reach to additional middle schools.

Says Hoffman, "Everyone benefits from this program—the middle schoolers, the middle school, the volunteers, and the College. Basically, we try to have as much fun as we can exploring physics with these kids. And, in trying to inspire future scientists and engineers, I think that's the best thing we can do."

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