The winners of the APS-sponsored 2008 PhysicsQuest contest have been selected. Jason Holstege’s 7th Grade Science class at the Heritage Christian School in Hudsonville, Michigan won this year’s grand prize. The class was awarded with a $500 certificate to the educational supplier Educational Innovations, and each student won an iPod Shuffle engraved with “PhysicsQuest Supehero.”
“I was pretty shocked when I got the call on a Friday afternoon, and I had to check the website out a couple times just to see the school’s name listed there in order to believe that we had really won,” Holstege said, “[I]t also feels good, because the students worked hard at understanding the concepts.”
Each year APS sends out thousands of PhysicsQuest kits containing simple physics experiments to teachers and students across the country. Each kit includes four classroom experiments and an activity book aimed at middle school students. This year’s theme focused on the life and work of Nicola Tesla. These kits were also the first to include an original comic book, recounting the story of young Tesla and his adventures to illuminate the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
“The goals are to give kids an experience with physics. The main idea is to teach them something without them realizing it,” Rebecca Thompson-Flagg, head of outreach for APS said. “The comic book was a big hit. It was something they hadn’t seen before.”
In keeping with this year’s Tesla theme, most of the experiments incorporated the physics of electricity, emphasizing its close connection with magnetism. These included dropping a magnet through a coil of wire to induce a current, using an electrical current’s magnetic field to change the direction a compass points, and combining a magnet and battery to turn a pinwheel. The kit also taught students about how light bends in a transparent medium whose index of refraction is greater than 1.
The kits have become favorites among school systems with limited resources and home schooled students because they’re offered free of charge to anyone who requests them. In addition, by focusing on seventh and eighth grades, the kits help to fill a gap in physical science teaching resources for that age group.
“Middle school kind of gets forgotten about,” Thompson-Flagg said, “It’s hard to target them directly.”
PhysicsQuest started in 2005 as a tie-in with the World Year of Physics celebration. The first kit featured experiments and activities based on the life of Albert Einstein. Subsequent kits highlighted scientists Benjamin Franklin and Marie Curie. In conjunction with next year’s LaserFest program, the 2009 kits will include a series of laser-based experiments and original laser superhero Spectra.
Even the method for picking the winners affords students and teachers a physics lesson. This year’s winners were chosen using a random number generator based on fluctuations in atmospheric radio static. This yields truly random numbers, as opposed to pseudo random numbers which are usually calculated by a computer using a complex algorithm.
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