Fall 2003


What Makes a Physics-Outreach Program Family Friendly?

Robert Greenler

I was invited to give a talk at the 2003 Summer Meeting of the AAPT. The talk was in a session titled “Family Physics” sponsored by the AAPT Committee on Science Education for the Public. I agreed to do it and assumed that the talk would be about a series of public science programs—The Science Bag—with which I have been involved for the past 30 years.

As is commonly the case, the talk didn’t really begin to take shape until I sat down to organize it, and that process caused me to consider some different questions than I had thought about before. I have developed a number of ideas about what makes Science Bag programs work, but I had never considered the question phrased as it is in the title of this piece: What makes such a program family friendly? After the meeting a few people asked me to write an article to share those comments with others—with the result that you are now reading.

My greatest regret is that I must leave out the visual aids that, I believe, add interest to any presentation. It means that I must just tell you about some of the ideas, rather than illustrating them with pictures and video clips.

I will begin by describing the program that is the subject of these comments.

In Milwaukee, on every Friday evening, for 5 months of the year, you will find an eager and enthusiastic audience of people from the community, generally filling a 250-seat lecture room in the Physics Building at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. On one Sunday afternoon of each month a group also shows up for a matinee performance. So the same program is given five or six times in a month, but each month has a different program presented by a different faculty member. The audience comes to see The Science Bag, a series that has finished its 30th year, with a cumulative attendance of over 140,000 people.

Although the presence of children is obvious, this is not a children’s program. Our surveys have shown that about 70% of those who attend are beyond high-school age. About 40% are in the 30 to 50 year bracket with significant numbers of attendees in each decade of their lives—only up to the 9th decade as far as I know. So, a wide age-range of people is represented—and many of them are families

A number of times I have had the comment, made to me by people who recognize me from the programs I have given, to the effect, ”Oh, we raised three children on the Science Bag. We came to almost every program….”

A few times people have gone on the make the next comment, mentioning that, “After the kids left home we quit coming for a year or so until I said to my husband, ‘We like those programs; why aren’t we going to them?” and then we started coming again without the kids as an excuse.”

Gennn Schmieg and I started those programs 30 years ago out of our concern for the general poor state of the public’s understanding and interest in science. We also believed that it is appropriate for the university to contribute in informal ways to the life of the community. We ran the program together for a few years, then Glenn went on to other things. After 25 years of programs, I decided that things were well enough started that I could turn the programs over to Norm Lasca of the Geosciences Department, and the program continues, just finishing its 30th season.

In terms of attendance and the enthusiasm of the people who come to these programs, they have to be considered a significant success. The question relevant to the intent of the AAPT session is “What makes them attractive to families?”

I have no claim to authority in answering this question, but I have developed some opinions—over the years of being involved with this program—and I am willing to share them, as such.


While preparing my remarks for the meeting, I realized that while thinking about techniques for making the programs successful, I had overlooked a basic principle, lacking which, nothing else matters. I assume that it is stating the obvious to say:

The Presentation Must Contain Interesting Ideas.

Those of you who have read books to children know that some books appropriate to a particular age are interesting to the adult—even when read again and again—while others, also age appropriate, are boring, boring, boring to the adult, through perhaps not to the child. For the whole transaction (the reading and the listening) to work best, the story needs to be interesting to both parties. Clearly the same is true of a family science program. If it is a Bozo-the-Clown performance, the kids may love it—and the parents may drop them off for the show and pick them up later. So, this also may be obvious, but some things are only obvious after you think about them:

The Program Must Be Interesting to Both the Children and to the Adults.

An idea, with which I strongly agree, was stated in a flowery way by Michael Faraday. He was convinced that when we talk of science to a public audience, it is important to use demonstrations as a part of the presentation. Faraday wrote:

“…for though to all true philosophers science and nature will have charms innumerable in every dress, yet I am sorry to say that the generality of mankind cannot accompany us one short hour unless the path is strewed with flowers.”

So, when recruiting a speaker or interviewing a volunteer, I insist on “flowers.“ I have told potential presenters, “No matter how good a lecture you can give, if it is just a lecture, it is not good enough. It should have slides and video clips and demonstrations that are bigger than a breadbox and the things it takes to make it a show.” Faraday”s “flowers” are attractive to both children and adults. Colorful demonstrations, video clips, and a frequent changing from one medium of presentation to another helps to stretch the attention span of both young and old. So I summarize this idea by:

The Presentation Should Contain a Generous Allotment of “Flowers.”

It is attractive to choose children (and important to pick both boys and girls) from the audience to help with demonstrations, and I recommend it. But I think there is a trap here. It is fine to use a 10-year-old to help with a demonstration. But, If you do the explaining to the 10-year-old, it may be the kiss-of-death to a high schooler’s interest, and it may give permission for an adult not to listen carefully to what you are saying. If the explanation is given to the adults, in language clear enough for the 10-year-old and the high schooler to understand, you may be able to have all of their attention. So I suggest that you

Involve Children in the Demonstrations but Address the Program to the Adults.

I mentioned earlier that the Science Bag is not a children’s program, but it is a program for nonscientists—which includes some children. I am frequently asked, “How old must my children be to attend the Science Bag programs?”

Of course there is no numerical answer to that question without many caveats. Some programs are more accessible to younger children than others. Programs with more lively demonstrations may hold the attention and interest of children who may not follow some of the explanations. Also some 12-year-olds may not be able to sit still for an hour-long program wheres some 6-year-olds do have a sufficient attention span.

I also have asked questioned people who bring their children about the appropriate minimum age, and I come up with an age of around 8 when quite a few children start to enjoy these programs.

I have a belief that is not confirmed by any studies that I know of—but still a belief of mine. When people come into a lecture room (for either a class or a program) their receptivity for what they are about to hear is influenced by what they see in the room. I believe that interesting-looking objects, arranged with some care and attention to how they are displayed on the lecture bench or wall, can bring an expectancy to the audience, that influences how they listen and how much they appreciate what they see and hear. So, before a person gives his or her program, I have them think about what the lecture bench will display. I think that this expectancy effect is important enough to justify having things present that are not necessary for the presentation, but which can be referred to in passing and add visual interest to the lecture table.

Increase the Expectancy of the Audience with an Interesting Display on the Lecture Table and Walls.

I realize that some of these suggestions apply both to the children and the adults in the audience. With the (perhaps arguable) assumption that children have shorter attention spans than adults, it is important to use those techniques to retain their attention and interest in a program that is designed to (also) interest the adults.

As an offshoot of our Science Bag program, we have produced videotape versions of selected programs and are preparing to offer these programs on DVD, in addition to their current availability on VHS tape. More information about these programs may be seen at

Robert Greenler is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is well known for his popular lectures on physics, especially optical phenomena, and he served as president of the Optical Society of America. His present address is 6225 Mineral Point Rd., Apt. 17, Madison, WI 53705.