December 13, 2002
Physics Students Help Middle Schoolers See the Light
Photo: Fred LeBlanc
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
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.
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 programthe 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."