APS News

APS Flips for PhysicsQuest

By Calla Cofield

It’s been said that physicists never do anything the easy way, and the APS Outreach Department is no exception. To randomly select a grand-prize winner for its annual PhysicsQuest contest for middle school classes, APS abandoned the traditional method of drawing raffle tickets, and randomly generated a binary number by flipping a coin. Each of the 1032 eligible classes was assigned an 11-digit binary number in the order they submitted their answers. A coin was flipped for each digit–each heads representing a one and each tails representing a zero.  

To make things even more interesting, APS recruited some very special coin flippers–the kids at the American Center for Physics daycare center. The well-behaved youngsters flipped their quarters as best they could (though most simply threw them in the air), and were then told to hold their hands over the coins as the results were recorded. Because most of the numbers (anything under 1024) began with a zero, there was a good chance that a “heads” flip in the first spot would generate a number too large, and all coins would have to be flipped again. It only took two tries to get 00010111100, or, number 188: Jan Aschim’s 4th period 8th grade class from Rockford, Illinois. To spare the kids from a whole afternoon of coin flipping, the five runner-up classes were chosen using an on-line random number generator.

The students in the winning class will all receive iPod Shuffles, along with some fun science gadgets from Educational Innovations. Five runner-up classes will also receive science gadgets for each student and a $100 gift certificate to Educational Innovations.  

PhysicsQuest is an APS activity kit given free of charge to middle school classes who request it. An activity book and small set of supplies help students perform classroom experiments that have a different theme each year. Results from carefully conducted experiments help the students solve a physics-themed mystery. This year’s PhysicsQuest mystery focused on Marie Curie and the secret classes she took in Russian-occupied Poland. Women were not allowed to attend the local university, so Curie met with professors and other female students in secret.  

This year’s experiments involved temperature, heat and energy. They included measuring temperature by touch vs. with a thermometer; using dye to observe the speed of molecules in cold water vs. warm water; creating your own bulb thermometer to show the change that materials undergo with temperature change; and measuring the creation of heat through energy release by rubbing your hands together, or adding yeast to hydrogen peroxide. The experiments showed students the importance of precision instruments and the effects of heat and energy on materials. Each class had to submit a correct set of answers to be entered into the drawing.  

The very surprised Ms. Aschim said the students were proud of their victory, walking around saying “We really did something!”   

Students are supposed to solve the PhysicsQuest problems on their own, which Aschim says was a challenge for some students. “At first it was hard for them because they were so used to me helping them. Some were slower than others, but they just sat and worked through it. I liked to hear them talking back and forth trying to work out the problems,” she said.

Visit PhysicsQuest.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Science Writing Intern: Nadia Ramlagan