Spring 2003



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There is a Flavor of Outreach for Everyone

I had my first taste of physics outreach more than 10 years ago while a MTS at Bellcore, the now defunct research arm of the telephone companies. Bellcore received NSF funding and the Bellcore Summer Teacher Institute was born. For a month in the summer, a select group of elementary school teachers came to Bellcore and were exposed to aspects of math, science, technology, and computers that they had never been exposed to before. I developed a day of physics experiments utilizing very inexpensive materials. I was truly captivated by the enthusiasm and eagerness to learn that these teachers exhibited. These experiences had me hooked – I was exposed to situations I had never been exposed to before. I was more than apprehensive when the school year started and a couple of those teachers asked me to come to their school to work with their students.

My naove model long ago worked surprisingly well. I brought many small demonstrations to a classroom, asked kids lots of questions about the demo, and asked for predictions. Finally, I selected a student to do the demo. We would then discuss the differences between the outcome and their predictions. The students remained very interested and had a lot of fun. Through conversations with numerous colleagues, I believe that most physicists use this model when visiting their own kids’ classrooms; I still sometimes do.

My ideas evolved when I came to Syracuse University. The university has much more equipment at my disposal, and the personnel and expertise to design and build new apparatus. Attending AAPT meetings and seeing what other programs were doing was also very educational. We are currently involved with three very different models of outreach: Demo shows with or without hands-on activities, hallway displays, and teacher workshops.

Several times each year, we do demonstration shows in our auditorium for various groups: Science Horizons, a select group of middle school students who are on campus for the summer, Cub Scouts, and various elementary school groups. These demonstration shows are very interactive, similar in model to those old Bellcore visits. The equipment is of course much better and larger. Most of the demonstrations are eventually performed by a student from the group. The one demonstration that all students get to experience is our large Van de Graaff generator. The column is 5’ tall, and a 1 m diameter dome sits on top. This apparatus generates loud and bright 4’ sparks routinely and up to 5’ sparks on a good day. Students are amazed when they stand a few feet away and ‘feel’ the electric field (the ground electrode is about 1’ away). Students will usually call attention to some large piece of dust that is alternatively attracted to the dome and the grounded ceiling.

When the demo show is over, we move a large conference room where numerous smaller ‘experiments’ are displayed. The students are free to roam the room as they please, spending more time with the apparatus that interests them. This is our ‘hands-on’ portion. Beside each apparatus is sign that suggests something to try with the apparatus and what to watch for. A question or two about what they observe follows the description along with a brief explanation. The text must be kept to a bare minimum. We generally allocate 45 minutes for each portion of the program.

Time constraints are the major drawback to developing more outreach programs. Setting these two portions of a program up can be quite time consuming, especially when we do this many times a year. We have another way to reach out to students who may not otherwise take a physics course. We have a display case in the lobby of the Physics Building, currently with four apparatus exhibited[1],[2]. Thousands of students pass by the case each week, many of whom do not take science classes. This method of outreach has the advantage of reaching numerous students and allows you to develop explanations in greater detail. Students have numerous opportunities to interact with an exhibit that interests them, with the hope that each time, they learn something new.

Developing displays that are robust enough to withstand the onslaught of thousands of hands is time consuming. Once the display is debugged, the time needed for maintenance and upkeep is minimal. We can now reach students at their convenience with no time commitment from us. Unfortunately, the displays are bolted into the display case, so they only serve Syracuse University students and visitors. We hope to fabricate new displays and copies of our current displays for deployment to other venues such as the Museum of Science and Technology (MOST), the local science museum.

We can reach a limited number of select students each year with the programs detailed above. Our teacher workshops can impact orders of magnitude more students. We organize roughly eight teacher workshops during the academic year[3], sending out mailings to roughly 150 high school physics teachers within a 2-hour drive from Syracuse. The workshops are held on a Saturday morning from 9:00 – 12:00. Our attendance averages 25 teachers, some making the 2-hour commute. Colleagues from Buffalo State have made the trek on several occasions. Our workshops give regional high school physics teachers opportunities to interact with their peers, most of whom are the sole physics teacher in their school. In addition to the social gathering, we organize a program of activities to help enhance their teaching skills. These activities are as simple as allowing a ‘sharing’ session, where teachers describe pedagogical methods that they have found particularly useful in their classrooms. We received Bauder Funds[4] to develop and host a “Bring in and Fix Your Van de Graaff Generator” workshop. Twenty five broken Van de Graaff generators arrived that Saturday morning and were sparking 3 hours later. These teachers came because they did not know how to repair the equipment in their classroom, nor could they explain how these machines worked. The teachers left this workshop with new skills and knowledge.

We invite outside ‘experts’ to participate in our workshops. Last year, two high school teachers who attended a Modeling Workshop[5] led a similar full day workshop. That workshop exposed teachers to new educational strategies. This year, an outreach group (PARTICLE)[6] from the University of Rochester gave a presentation describing their program. Several teachers are applying for admission to the PARTICLE workshop this summer workshop. These teachers most likely would not have applied had they not been exposed to this program through our workshop.

I recently attended a physics outreach conference at Colorado State University. Doug Osheroff stated that we should all feel compelled to do outreach, recalling his memories of such childhood experiences. Perhaps you do not know where to start or what to do. My intention was to describe our various outreach programs here at Syracuse University with the intention that at least one may intrigue you enough, fit your interests and time schedule, to start your own program.

Sam Sampere
Department of Physics
Syracuse University
Syracuse, NY 13244
Phone 315-443-5999

[1] Sampere, S.M., The Neon Sign, Phys. Teach. 37, 140 (1999).

[2] See also

[3] See


[5] See

[6] See