Spring 2003



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Exploring Physics – an Extracurricular Program for Middle Level Students

Exploring Physics is an extra curricular program targeted to female students in grades 5-7. The program focuses on hands-on activities that are concept oriented, with several activities structured to develop a given concept. The program runs for eight 90-minute sessions in the students’ schools. While many outreach programs take a “smorgasbord” approach, we chose to develop a program that explores a few concepts in depth via sequenced activities. Students explore the concepts over a four-week period, at the end of which they have done several activities and constructed a few toys or gizmos. Science teachers, who receive content training at Summer Teacher Institutes, conduct the programs. Kits of equipment and materials are stocked and organized by staff in the University of Missouri Physics Department, and teachers check them out for the four-week period. The program is currently available at several Missouri schools. Enrollment is limited to 20-30 students per four-week program. About 300 students participate in the Exploring Physics annually.

Program philosophy

Development of Exploring Physics units began in 1992, funded by grants from the National Science Foundation’s program for Women and Girls. We developed each content area over the period of a year and now have units on Optics, Electricity and Magnetism, Mechanics, and Sound. The initial development and formative evaluation of each content area was done in collaboration with two middle-level science teachers, a physics undergraduate or graduate student, the science coordinator of the school district, and the authors. Each area (e.g., Optics) is organized in several modules (Optics has four modules: Reflection, Refraction, Color, and Polarization). Each module has six to ten hands-on activities, developed using the following philosophy based on the 5E learning cycle[1]:

  • Students begin a module with an exploratory game or activity. These games will serve to internalize the concept, rather than learn it in a formal sense.
  • Students use the internalized concepts to build a gadget, art project, game or toy, thereby developing their building and mechanical skills.
  • Experiments that use both commonly available materials and simple scientific equipment, for example, digital voltmeters or ray boxes are used to develop and expand the concept. Students see that science is manifest in everyday life, and simultaneously gain familiarity with laboratory equipment.
  • Students use common shop tools under supervision of the teacher. Many female students express awe at having used an electric drill in the program.
  • For students in the higher grades, quantitative analysis is introduced.
  • The last session of each program is a family night, when students get to explain their activities and creations to parents, and also view a few "gee-whiz" type exhibits. These exhibits are handled with interactive explanations so that they are not regarded as "magic". Family night helps publicize the program and excite the interest of parents in the “dreaded” area of physics.

Unit content

Exploring Physics is organized into seven separate units, each of which has about twenty to thirty activities and takes eight sessions to complete. Level I units are used for 5-6 grade, while level II units are used for 6-8 grade (grade groupings vary by school). The content modules in each of these units is listed in Table I below:

Table I: Units and modules in Exploring Physics

Matter and Mechanics I: Air and Stability

Matter and Mechanics II: Water, Density and Simple Machines.

Optics I: Reflection and Color

Optics II: Refraction and Polarization

Electricity I: Static Electricity, Batteries, Bulbs and Switches, and Circuits

Electricity and Magnetism-II: Magnets, Solenoids, Resistors, and Capacitors.

Sound I: How sound travels, Vibrations, Pitch, Volume and Resonance

Table II below summarized the activities and concepts explored in Reflection module:

Table II. The Reflection module from the Optics I unit

Reflection Maze (game)

Internalization of the law of reflection: a maze is built with wall blocks. Mirrors are placed to reflect a laser beam on to the target.

Multiple Reflections

Discovery of the number of images one sees with two mirrors.

Corner Cube reflector (project)

Application: build a 4" a corner cube reflector similar to the one the Apollo astronauts left on the moon. Examine the corner cubes used in bike reflectors.


Build a kaleidoscope with mailing tubes and mirrors


Discovery of the law of reflection.

How does a periscope work?

Discovery of how mirrors need to be placed in a periscope.

Making a periscope (project)

Build a periscope.

Curved Mirrors: sort and order

Discovery of the criteria to sort and order concave and convex mirrors of several different focal lengths.

Reflection from curved surfaces

Discover more about curved mirrors: how it relates to the law of reflection, and where the focal points are.

Focal lengths of mirrors

Measure the focal lengths of the sorted mirrors.


The primary goal of the Exploring Physics programs was to increase female students’ interest and confidence in the physical sciences. While it was amply evident from talking to the students and their parents that they had enjoyed the programs and learned from them, measuring changes in attitude turned out to be a challenge. After several iterations, we developed instrument that proved to be reliable. This six-item instrument was given before and after the program (same instrument pre- and post). Fig 2 shows a graph of the confidence of female 5th grade students before and after they participated in an Exploring Physics program, compared with a peer group of females and males. Before the program, both groups of females showed confidence levels on all six items that were lower than that of the male students. After the program, the female students who participated in Exploring Physics registered a confidence level higher than that of the male students. Similar results were observed for the Electricity unit.

Fig. 2. Confidence of Comparison Group (male and female) with and Experimental Group (female) taking the Optics I unit of Exploring Physics. Items numbers refer to questions on the Confidence survey that deal with (1) balancing a tower (2) simple circuits (3) magnets (4) color addition (5) flashlight circuit (6) curved mirrors. Answers are graded on a Likert scale from 1 – 9 (9 = greatest confidence).

Applications, Expansion and Future Plans

While the Exploring Physics program was designed as an after-school program for female students, we have found that the materials have multiple uses. With the addition of quantitative applications, we have developed a summer professional development program for inservice teachers, which have the dual benefit of training teachers to teach the extra-curricular program as well as to introduce the concepts and materials into middle level classrooms.

The Electricity and Magnetism unit has been expanded and published as a CD Exploring Physics, Electricity and. Magnetism, with an extensive collection of background links, animations, lists of materials and sources, challenge activities, and quantitative problems (sample version at

Program support:

This program was supported by the National Science Foundation, through grants NSF HRD 96-19140 “Promoting Young Women in the Physical Sciences,” and NSF HRD 99-08509, 1999 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. The first grant has also supported the development of three other extra-curricular programs, Families Exploring Science and Technology (FEST), Saturday Scientist, and the Newton Summer Academy all of which are described on our websites listed below.

For more information, contact

Meera Chandrasekhar
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of Missouri
Columbia, MO 65211
Tel 573-882-3625
Fax 573-882-4195

[1] National Academy of Sciences (1998). Teaching about evolution and the nature of science. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.