Physics Class Field Trips to the Local Science Museum

Helen Briggs

A little over 25 years ago, my algebra-based physics class begged for a field trip. The biology classes got to go lots of places but we did not. They suggested a trip to Discovery Place in Charlotte. It is a 20 000 square foot interactive science museum about 90 minutes away from our campus. I got a van and away we went for a day of fun, or so I thought. The problem was that the students looked at the exhibits but did not touch anything. They really did not have any concept of what to do and were a little afraid that they might do it wrong or worse yet, break something. It was an educational failure for them and a big disappointment for me.

The next year we went back but this time I came prepared with a rough map of where to locate 10 specific exhibits and a series of required activities for each student to do at the selected stations. We were going to make it a "real" physics lab, complete with data acquisition and calculations. They came away excited about what they had learned and amazed at all the different places we managed to find physics.

The following year I could not afford the time or money necessary to take my class to Charlotte. They were disappointed because this had been viewed as the reward for surviving an entire year of physics class. One of my students suggested we go to the local science museum, the Catawba Science Center. I agreed and went on my fact finding mission the next week. They had a lot of "standard" physics exhibits: whisper dishes, giant kaleidoscope, flow tunnel, and so on. I drew a map and wrote out required activities for our visit. I was amazed at how much fun and excitement the students had. Using simple measuring devices I provided (a stopwatch and a measuring tape) and the 12 exhibits I picked out, they saw connections for the physics we talked about the entire year. There were activities related to mechanics, optics, thermodynamics, and even acoustics. Two students subsequently became volunteers for the science center and several wanted to know what the regular hours of operations were so that they could bring their friends!

This was the start of a tradition for my physics classes. Every year they look forward to their "fun" lab and the science at the museum. I mention the lab activity all year long to build anticipation. I have managed to keep this field trip fresh because the science center changes its exhibits and brings in new ones on a temporary basis. The downside is that I sometimes cannot do a favorite activity because it is no longer on the floor and I have to go every year to review the exhibits and write up new instructions for the ones I pick. I am always glad we go. The students thank me and often branch out to try things I did not require. It opens their eyes to see science in the world around them.

Helen Briggs is an Associate Professor of Physics at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, NC.

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