Kids can do more than just clown around with the UCSB Physics Circus program.
The outreach program is just one of UCSB’s faculty and student group programs aimed at teaching science to local K-12 students. The Physics Circus, sponsored by faculty member Deborah Fygenson and overseen by program coordinator and graduate student Anne Wrigley, focuses on illustrating different concepts of physics to children in the neighboring communities through the use of fun-filled experiments and interactive demonstrations.
Fygenson said the group’s name came from a popular book written to excite the curiosity of children and get them involved in the everyday applications of physics.
“There is a book by Jearl Walker, and it’s called The Flying Circus of Physics,” Fygenson said. “Back when I was a kid, [Walker] used to write columns in the back of Scientific American about the cool thing you could build yourself to see the physics principles involved. He would suggest certain experiments you could do yourself to try and understand, and towards the end of his career, he compiled a lot of cool questions and answers in this book called The Flying Circus of Physics. The group was named after that. The idea being that we are trying to entertain as well as educate so that kids in school can share our enthusiasm for how cool physics is.”
Undergraduate and graduate students, along with faculty members, demonstrate simple concepts through performances and experiments, Fygenson said.
“One show involves demonstrating what liquid nitrogen is,” she said. “We often use this demonstration at the end of a show, because we can pick this material and set it in a glass on a table and let it boil. We can explain that it is liquid air — it’s so cold that the air itself turns from a gas to a liquid, and then we put various things in the liquid nitrogen to cool them down and show the students what difference it makes in the properties. If you take a bouncy ball, like a racquetball, and drop it in liquid nitrogen and pull it out a minute later and bounce it again, it shatters because it is so solid and rigid.”
During one experiment, the group gave the children nitrogen-dipped marshmallows, Fygenson said. She said the students were surprised when they crunched down on the normally chewy snack and discovered it was frozen and crispy.
Although graduate students are the force behind the Physics Circus, Fygenson said undergraduate students are also welcome to help out. Those interested in teaching children about physics must e-mail either Fygenson or Wrigley and then attend a training session, she said.
“We get lots of requests now from the community to go out and give shows, and we do what we can based on how many people are willing to spend however much time,” Fygenson said. “There is an opportunity to get trained on a demo. We have scripts, which we read through, and we talk about how to do the demo. It takes some practice. It is a performance, a demonstration — something that you have to rehearse to make sure that it has the right effect.”
The next Physics Circus performance will take place at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History on May 10, National Astronomy Day. Those interested in finding out more information may visit the group’s Web site at http://www.physics.ucsb.edu/~circus/.
In addition to the Circus, UCSB has a Chemistry Department Outreach Program. Sponsored by faculty member and chemistry professor Petra Van Koppen, the program works with fifth through seventh graders to promote scientific curiosity and interest in higher education. Organized through the American Chemical Society’s Chemistry Club on campus, UCSB students can volunteer to help conduct these learning activities by visiting the program’s Web site and registering to receive e-mails of upcoming events.
Chemistry Club Secretary Erika Romero-Gutierrez, a first-year biochemistry major, said the programs are beneficial to children because they exposes them to science.
“Well, I think it is very satisfying not only for the kids or for the students, but for both,” Romero-Gutierrez said. “The kids participating end up being prepared for college and for science. The outreach program is to get these young students interested in the world of science. They end up being very excited, and they ask a lot of questions about college and science. It’s opening up new doors for them.”
Potential volunteers can find out more information about the chemistry program on its Web site at http://www.chem.ucsb.edu/~outreach/.