The Little Shop of Physics:
A Traveling Hands-On Science Experience
Background:Twelve years ago, Brian Jones, the Director of the Little Shop of Physics, presented a series of programs at the Windsor Colorado Middle School. The experience was, to put it mildly, not a success. The students were not interested in watching someone else do interesting science: they wanted to do it themselves. This failure resulted in the birth of the Little Shop of Physics, a unique traveling hands-on science outreach program at Colorado State University. Brian decided that the next time we came to this school, he was going to be certain to bring a program in which the students were the scientists. As the project took shape, a group of local teachers volunteered to provide valuable direction and insight, and a group of undergraduates at CSU volunteered to provide the energy and initiative. After a modest start which brought 25 hands-on science experiments to a half-dozen schools in the 1991-1992 school year, the Little Shop of Physics has grown to a rotating collection of 75+ hands-on science experiments, presented by a large and enthusiastic crew of tie-dye clad undergraduate students. It has traveled the region, the nation, and the world, bringing a remarkable hands-on science experience to nearly 200,000 children to date.
The fact that the program is developed and presented by undergraduate students at CSU is the key. These undergraduate students who develop and present the experiments come away with an amazing experience as well. No other program at Colorado State University involves so many undergraduates across so many majors in doing interesting, creative work – as a team. From the college students who develop and present the programs to the K-12 students we visit, we share a message that science is exciting, fun, and something anyone can do.
Overview: We refer to the Little Shop of Physics as an interactive traveling science experience. Our experiments are designed and built by undergraduate students at Colorado State University and presented to K-12 students at schools around the state and region. We share exciting science with thousands of students each year, but we also share an idea: that science is something they can do. We provide workshops for teachers, evening programs for students and their families, and a local television program, Everyday Science. We also offer classroom materials and support to teachers, a Web site (http://littleshop.physics.colostate.edu) where students and teachers can ask us questions in addition to presenting talks and workshops at local and national meetings. We also travel internationally; in recent years, the Little Shop of Physics has presented programs and workshops in Canada, Chile, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Belize and El Salvador. We have hosted visitors from The Gambia, Korea and Chile. There are several aspects of the Little Shop of Physics program that make it unique and effective:
7 Scope of Schools Visited. The Little Shop of Physics visits over 50 schools each year, presenting programs to over 15,000 K-12 students. Since our start in 1992, we have presented programs to over 200,000 students. Since we travel, we can provide programs to schools that are far from science museums and other such resources: on the Navajo reservation, in the San Luis Valley and on the eastern plains. Many of the schools in these areas have high minority populations. Some schools that we visit get few, if any, such outside programs. Given that many of the schools we visit have limited resources, we have no set fees for our programs and only take donations. Our international travels are, as well, generally off the beaten track, to destinations such as the Baku Teacher Training Institute in Azerbaijan and Abbiyi Addi College in Ethiopia.
7 Hands-on approach. The Little Shop of Physics is the only traveling hands-on science outreach program of this scope in the country. We bring 75+ experiments and four to five helpers to each school we visit, and our emphasis is on making the students the scientists.
7 Nature of experiments. Each of our experiments uses common, everyday objects. To show sound waves, we don’t use an oscilloscope; we use a black-and-white television set that we have modified. To make a Cartesian diver, we don’t use a pipette; we use a ketchup packet from McDonald's. The key is accessibility: every experiment in our collection can be duplicated by teachers from the schools we work with, and most can be done by the students themselves.
7 Service learning component. The undergraduate students that work with the Little Shop of Physics (approximately 60-80 each year) gain valuable experience in building experiments, developing instructional materials, and presenting science to students at various educational levels. Many of the students plan on becoming teachers and so these lessons are especially valuable. We have recently begun offering a course, Physics Teaching Experience, to formalize this experience.
7 Sense of fun. The most important part of the Little Shop of Physics is this: everyone who takes part in it seems to have a good time doing so. The Colorado State University students who work with the program, the students to whom we make presentations, the teachers who bring us into their school classrooms and participate in our workshops, and the parents who bring their children to our evening programs. All of these people learn that science is accessible, but most importantly that it is fun and exciting.
7 Each year, we produce a new tie-dyed t-shirt with the dates and locations of our “world tour” on the back. The t-shirts also note the theme of the experiments that we develop. In each case, the theme promotes the universal accessibility and excitement of physics.
7 Science Magic. Our brief introduction to our presentations in the 2000-2001 tour showed a series of “magic” tricks that, on further inspection, where really based on science. “Is it magic?” we’d ask, and the kids knew to respond, “No – it’s science.” A valuable lesson indeed.
7 The Amazing Physics of Everyday Objects. This title, which was suggested by Fred Stein many years ago, perfectly captured the spirit of the 2001-2002 tour, in which we presented a set of experiments all of which were built out of equipment that was either bought at a hardware store, a discount store or a garage sale.
7 Discover Your Inner Scientist. Science is a process, a way of learning about the world. And most people already know how to do it. This is the heart of the 2002-2003 tour theme – and the associated experiments.
Our traveling collection of experiments – now numbering well over 200, of which we take 75+ on the road – are reworked versions of classic experiments using simple equipment, new uses we have come up with for everyday items, and some very odd and interesting experiments that grew out of working in a large group of creative people. Some examples:
7 Peanut Cruncher: Pressure from a bike pump compresses packing peanuts to a fraction of their original size. What happens when the pressure is released? And where does the cloud come from?
- The Wiggly Goo Ball: A children’s toy plus a massager plus a strobe light - the Wiggly Goo Ball vibrates in strange and unusual ways.
- The Spark Amplifier: A camera flash is connected to a fluorescent light bulb, and can be triggered from a distance by a static charge.
- Sodium Light Box: A monochromatic security light makes the world look all the same color, unless you look through the glassblower’s glasses.
- Little Shop Vacuum, of Physics: Feel the pressure of the atmosphere. If you have ever wanted to be vacuum packed, this is the experiment for you.
- String Thing: A big version of a classic children’s toy. The string is held in a graceful arc by the air from a blower.
- Fluorescence in Nature: Everyday objects such as flowers, rocks, and shells reveal exciting new dimensions in ultraviolet light. We have some scorpions too - freeze-dried, thank goodness - that light up bright green.
- Echo Drums: Two drums and a spring combine to make very cool sounds.
- It’s Raspberry Time: A digital clock is used to show you a little bit about how your eyes and your brain work to process images.
- The Bernoulli Barrel: A $1.00 shop vacuum from a garage sale has been adapted to levitate beach balls.
International Connections: The Little Shop of Physics approach to developing experiments with common items is of great use in developing new experiments in Colorado State University’s physics labs, where money is always tight, but it is even more valuable in the international venues we visit. Around the world, changes in physics education seem to be tracking changes that have occurred in the United States over the past few decades. Physics teachers all around the world are looking for ways to make their teaching more accessible, more exciting, and more hands-on. And physics teachers all around the world are always eager to share new ideas for lab experiments and demonstrations. The fact that we have some experience building things out of everyday objects is a real plus for teachers in developing countries, where resources are extremely limited. Our usual teacher workshop – no matter what the title – is about how to build physics teaching equipment out of low-cost, locally available materials. Of course, the teachers that we visit have interesting ideas and techniques to share as well, and so our visits are true exchanges of ideas. As with all of our outreach work, we benefit as much as those we visit.
Support and Thanks: As we have developed, we have been fortunate to collaborate with and receive support from several key sources:
- Colorado State University
- CSMATE, CSU’s Center for Science, Mathematics and Technology Education
- Hewlett Packard, Kodak, Agilent and others
- The APS and the AAPT (Bauder Fund)
- Schools and teachers around the region support us with donations, enthusiasm and ideas.
For more information, contact
Department of Physics
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO 80523