APS News

Franklin's Secret Message Revealed

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  Photo by Ken Cole

All the classes that had correctly deciphered Ben Franklin’s secret message were entered in the drawing for the PhysicsQuest grand prize. APS Executive Officer Judy Franz (left) picked the winner out of the drum as Head of Public Outreach Jessica Clark looked on.

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“French help arriving soon in America.” That was the correctly decoded (fictional) message from Ben Franklin that Maya Lampic’s sixth grade class found when they had completed APS’s PhysicsQuest 2006 learning adventure. Their correct answer, and a little luck, won them the grand prize: an iPod shuffle for each student, as well as some other prizes for the class.  

The 20 sixth grade girls from Chicago were among thousands of middle school students who have decoded the message as part of PhysicsQuest, APS’s mystery-based science kit for middle school students. Those classes that submitted the correct answers were entered in a random drawing to win prizes.

The 2006 PhysicsQuest mystery centered on Benjamin Franklin, in celebration of the 300th anniversary of his birth. The kit included materials and instructions for four experiments inspired by Franklin’s work with lenses, electricity, and heat absorption. Each experiment gave students a clue they needed to decode the secret message.

However, a typo in the manual caused some classes to come up with the message, “American delicacies I now miss especially.” APS accepted either answer as correct.

Last fall, 8700 kits were sent to 2120 teachers (teachers could register more than one class). Kits are free to teachers who request them. By the March 2 deadline, 900 classes had submitted answers, 290 of which were correct. Those that sent in the correct answers were eligible for a random drawing to win prizes. All classes that submitted results received a certificate of participation.

The five first place classes received PhysicsQuest journals, a gift card for science-related materials supplies, and a skyrail suspension kit. Maya Lampic’s 6th grade class, at Sacred Heart Schools in Chicago, won the grand prize: iPod shuffles, a $500 gift card for science-related materials for the class, PhysicsQuest journals, and a skyrail suspension kit.

Lampic and her classes participated in PhysicsQuest in 2005, and again in 2006.“The students enjoy solving the problems to get clues to the final answer,” she said. “They enjoy the different experiments, and I am introduced to some new ones I have not earlier thought of. To be introduced to famous scientist and learn about less known sides of them is intriguing.”

She has even gotten some extra use out of her 2005 PhysicsQuest kit. “After Benjamin’s Franklin’s secret message, I used materials from Albert’s Einstein’s hidden treasure to introduce the students to the connection between electricity and magnetism. It was great,” she said.

Both Lampic and her students are already looking forward to next year’s PhysicsQuest. “I have 5th graders coming up to me excited to be able to be part of PhysicsQuest next year.” she said.

Lampic is making good use of the prizes–a colleague will use the skyrail kit for a physics project, and the gift card will help her equip her science room for next year.

APS public outreach coordinator Kendra Rand said, “Teachers love that PhysicsQuest kits are fun and motivating for their students and develop lab skills in line with the standards teachers are required to teach. Most of them look for the catch when we tell them the kits are free because they see the value in the product. I wish that APS members could see the teachers’ reactions when we explain that the project is funded by the professional society for physicists. The teachers are grateful for the free materials, but I think what touches them even more is that the physics community recognizes that what they do in the classroom makes a difference.”

PhysicsQuest first started in 2005. “PhysicsQuest was initially developed as a way for middle school students to celebrate the World Year of Physics 2005, but has since grown into a much larger project,” said Rand.

With PhysicsQuest 2006 completed, kits are being developed for next year’s activity, which centers on the young Marie Curie, who grew up in Warsaw at a time when women were not allowed to attend college there. Each of the experiments will give students a clue they need to help Marie and her classmates avoid being caught as they study in secret. The kit will include experiments on heat, energy, and temperature.

“Registration for the 2007 kit has been open for less than two weeks and we already have requests from over 700 teachers representing more than 3,000 classrooms of 6th-9th grade students,” said Rand. “I think this is a testimony to the need within the middle school education community for accurate, fun physical science materials and to the difference that support and encouragement from the physics community can make.” 

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff