APS News | People and History

March Meeting Brings Squishy Science to Minneapolis Families

An afternoon of physics — and, well, cotton candy.

By
Published Apr 12, 2024
Children and meeting volunteers interact at science booth.
Children — and grown-ups — of all ages enjoyed Squishy Science Sunday at the March Meeting, including the author’s kids (center).
Credit: Left: Andrew B. Croll; center and right: Kendra Redmond

Cries of "Ew!" and "Slimy!" aren't the responses most APS meeting presenters hope to receive, but Squishy Science Sunday volunteers accepted the feedback with a grin. Throughout the four-hour public outreach event, kids of all ages poked and prodded, smushed and mixed, and played and created while exploring the softer side of physics.

The most overheard utterance? "That's so cool!"

Held in Minneapolis on the first day of APS March Meeting, the event drew families from the local community to the meeting venue. The goal was to highlight the big physics meeting happening in their town and expose them to science, says Shubha Tewari, a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the event's lead organizer.

And people did come — several hundred of them. Twin Cities families, APS members with and without kids, and even gymnasts attending a nearby competition explored biophysics, polymers, soft matter, and statistical physics through nearly 50 tables of hands-on activities. They also enjoyed visual displays and lightning talks on topics like the physics of superheroes and exploding hydrogels.

Many of the most energetic attendees had yet to take a physics class, and some had yet to see a kindergarten classroom, but that didn't dampen their enthusiasm. "This is directly up his alley," said Minneapolis parent Josh Przybylski, watching his four-year-old try to yank a rod out of a jar of sand. Rachel Turner buckled her youngest into a stroller as her other kids played with bubble wands. Even if they don't understand everything, she said, "my goal is just to get them excited about science."

Ariel Ayangwo and her five young kids happened upon the event by pure luck. While on a walk, they stopped by the convention center to see if anything fun was happening and ended up spending the afternoon. Her oldest couldn't decide which activity was the most fun — "There's so much good science!" — but a clear favorite emerged from the younger crew: Augsburg University's live demonstration of crystalline sugar turning into an amorphous solid — that is, fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth cotton candy.

While his kid was elbows-deep in an experiment, another parent, Alan Barnicle, commented on the event's uniqueness. "I love that [the people leading the activities] are actually physicists in labs and universities across the world," he said. "There is value in that."

A girl crouches in front of a science instrument as a volunteer looks on.
Averi, 10, visits an interactive booth.
Credit: APS TV / WebsEdge Science

To fully take advantage of the scientists who had descended on their city, attendees were encouraged to visit an "Ask a Physicist" table. One student stopped by to ask Alex Klotz, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, "What's a physicist?" Klotz kept it simple: "You know when you ask your parents why? Physicists get to the bottom of the whys." The student's eyes lit up, he said.

Many volunteers said those lightbulb moments were the most rewarding part of the experience. Volunteer Bharath Venkatesh, a postdoc at the University of California, Santa Barbara, loved seeing attendees express their curiosity and ingenuity while playing with magic sand. "Kids have been coming up with experiments," he said.

Six APS units brought Squishy Science to life with the support of APS and several sponsors. More than 100 APS members kicked off their meeting experience by volunteering, and Tewari hopes the event will become a March Meeting tradition.

"It's really important for us as a community of scientists to engage with the public," Tewari said. "Not only to inform the public about what we do, but also to let them know that we care about the problems of the world and that the things we are doing will have a direct impact on the lives of everyday people."

As the event drew to a close, Sarah Degner Riveros told her nine-year-old they'd have to head home soon. He'd been racing from table to table for four hours, returning again and again to his favorite station — making "sushi" out of Rice Krispie Treats topped with homemade boba — and even offering to teach other kids the activity. "Today was really fun," he said.

His mother agreed. "I think he might have found his thing."

Kendra Redmond

Kendra Redmond is a writer based in Bloomington, Minnesota.

/krstories/

Join your Society

If you embrace scientific discovery, truth and integrity, partnership, inclusion, and lifelong curiosity, this is your professional home.