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Sparking students' physics curiosity

Whether they know it or not, the first science most children are exposed to is physics.

“Think of a simple ball—how it moves with air resistance, how long it takes to hit the ground, and what happens when it bounces off another object,” said Luke DeMars, CSE physics student. “It’s amazing how these simple objects can take on quite a complicated mathematical model.”

That kind of thinking is what DeMars, an officer in the Society of Physics Students (SPS), wants to inspire in young students.

“Our group is trying to instill the idea behind scientific method. Nothing is spoon fed,” said DeMars. “We present them with an idea, ask them questions, and slowly guide them through the process. With time and a little bit of patience, you can start to see some amazing results.”

“Being able to show kids these things that seem like crazy mysteries is exciting for them, and the teachers are always grateful.”

–Becca Mclaughlin

In addition to being a professional association for students interested in physics, the University of Minnesota chapter of the Society of Physics Students participates in nearly 20 outreach activities each year.

“We’ve helped Boy Scouts obtain their nuclear science merit badge, attended STEM career fairs, worked in magnet and charter schools, presented at the CSE Math and Science Family Fun Fair, and demonstrated at Tech Fest at The Works Museum in Edina, Minn.,” said Becca McLaughlin, a CSE student in astrophysics and outreach coordinator for Society of Physics Students. “We’re currently renting some of our demonstrations out to the University’s Bell Museum of Natural History.”

Serving as ambassadors for science and engineering, DeMars and McLaughlin are among CSE students who want to inspire young students and improve science curriculum.

McLaughlin, who developed curriculum this past summer for the Science Discovery Day Camp at the Bell Museum, believes students need to see things in action. “My physics class in high school was more like a math class. If students aren’t super into math, they don’t get it conceptually, so it’s just more math to them.”

When it comes to teaching the STEM subjects at the elementary, junior high, and high school levels, DeMars feels things are kind of set on autopilot. “You have these standards that were set up years ago. They work so no one tries to improve them,” he said. “That goes against the core idea behind STEM, which needs to continue growing. Teaching and presenting these ideas needs to grow as well.”

That’s why McLaughlin and DeMars are working on ideas to make their outreach program even bigger and better in the future.

“We have all the really cool toys—like a turntable and wheel that shows conservation of angular momentum or a Van De Graf generator to create static electricity—which isn’t affordable for every grade school or high school classroom,” said McLaughlin.

“Being able to show kids these things that seem like crazy mysteries is exciting for them, and the teachers are always grateful.”