“PhysicsQuest provides 6th to 9th graders with a positive and fun experience with physics,” says Jessica Clark, Head of Public Outreach for APS. By continuing the program, the APS hopes to not only increase the number of participating classrooms, but also to “foster a locally active community of physicists–one that impacts the science education in their local areas.”
The kits are provided to teachers free of charge, one per class, although educators may register more than one class. Students work together to complete four experiments to gather “clues” to the “mystery.” They then submit their results to APS for a chance to win prizes. The kit includes teacher guides, student guides, and all of the materials students will need to complete the experiments. Last fall, the Society set out a total of 8650 kits to more than 2100 teachers.
The PhysicsQuest program was established in 2005 as part of the World Year of Physics celebrating Einstein’s “miracle year,” in which he published three papers that helped revolutionize physics. In 2005, students were asked to solve the mystery of Einstein’s “hidden treasure,” using clues provided in the activity kits.
Teachers responded with enthusiasm, praising the program for its innovative approach to encouraging middle school students to participate in hands-on physics. “The best part was to see the interest that was sparked in students who are normally disinterested,” one teacher wrote. Said another, “I believe that many of my students have decided to study physics at the high school level, when before they believed that they were not smart enough to do so.”
That is one of the primary goals of the program, according to Kendra Rand, Public Outreach Specialist for APS: to provide students with a positive experience with physics, in hopes that they will be more open to participating in future physics experiences. “We realize that a 50-minute class activity won’t effectively teach students about circuits,” says Rand. “But if it can draw them in enough so they consider taking physics when choosing their high school classes, or to consider a more challenging science project, we consider that a success.”
This year, the story line celebrates Ben Franklin’s 300th birthday year, with experiments built around Franklin’s work with lenses, electrostatics, and heat transfer, all while trying to decode a secret message from 1778 by completing a “magic square”: a square grid of empty boxes, in this case, 3 rows and 3 columns, which are then filled in with numbers according to a predetermined pattern. The young Ben Franklin loved to arrange numbers into patterns with special properties using such magic squares.
Even a critical misprint (since corrected) in the kit turned out to be educational. Frank Egan homeschools his three children–ages 10, 8 and 6–and ordered a PhysicsQuest kit after hearing about it from fellow homeschoolers. All three kids enjoyed the activities so much that they worked on it all through the first weekend, eager to solve the “mystery.” But when they decoded the message, it didn’t make any sense: “American delicacies I now miss especially.”
Then 10-year-old Frank had an epiphany, realizing that with the numbers 2 and 5 in the correct position in the magic square, there was only one other possible solution. When he tried it, it gave up the right secret message (which cannot be printed here because it’s, well, secret).
Chalk up a few bonus points for the homeschooled kids: they were the first to find the error. And Egan says they’re eager to participate in next year’s PhysicsQuest project as well. “All three children loved doing the experiments and solving the mystery,” he said. “It was a great learning experience for them, even more so because of the extra challenge provided by the error.”
Next year’s PhysicsQuest activity kit will focus on temperature. It is being designed in conjunction with a PBS documentary currently in production, Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold.
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Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff