Spring 2003



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Science Theater at Michigan State University

Science Theater is a student organization at Michigan State University that provides science outreach activities for schools and community groups in the state of Michigan. The organization is sponsored by the Department of Physics and Astronomy at MSU. The history, goals, activities and organization of Science Theater will be described in this article.

History. Science Theater was started in 1991 by a group of graduate students in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Their interest was to present public shows made up of physics demonstrations. In one of their first shows, 20 students participated at Science Day at the Meridian Mall ―an event at which science teachers from area high schools and colleges showed science activities at a local shopping mall to raise the level of interest in science. The shows by Science Theater attracted approximately one thousand people at that event. This and later similar presentations introduced Science Theater to the community, which led in turn to many invitations to appear in school assemblies, classrooms, and community events. To manage the activities, a formal organization was established, with by-laws and election of officers.

Two important tasks in the early years of Science Theater were to build or acquire equipment for physics demonstrations, and to develop scripts for shows on various physics topics. This work was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Also, a booklet entitled Recipes for Science was written, describing the demonstrations that are available in the Science Theater shows, for documentation and for reference for teachers who wish to schedule Science Theater presentations in their schools.

As the demand for Science Theater increased, undergraduate students joined the organization. Activities in sciences other than physics were also developed. Today Science Theater includes student volunteers from many branches of science and engineering. Within the organization are separate department groups for Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Engineering, and Physics & Astronomy.

Goals. The general goals of Science Theater are focused on the issue of science literacy. The purpose is to create in the audience an enthusiasm and appreciation for science. Two types of events are pursued today—school visits and community visits. The Science Theater web page lists the specific goals for each case. The goals for school visits are:

  1. to act as a resource for teachers;
  2. to interact with students;
  3. to show the relevance of science in everyday life;
  4. to provide positive role models in science for students;
  5. to support and encourage teachers in science.

The Science Theater presenters do not replace the classroom teacher in science, but provide resources that would not be available in a typical school.

The goals of community visits are:

  1. to be an interface between the general public and the scientific community;
  2. to demystify science;
  3. to discourage stereotypes of science and scientists;
  4. to provide accurate information about the role of science in everyday life.

Activities. Science Theater presentations take two forms—stage shows and “hands-on” activities. In both cases the tone of the presentation is informal, and interaction between participants and presenters is encouraged. In hands-on experiments the participants perform science demonstrations themselves, guided by the Science Theater presenter. The stage shows run from 30 to 60 minutes and are presented to larger groups in an auditorium setting. Even in a stage show, audience members should be actively engaged, rather than passive spectators.

For school shows, a group of science demos are combined to form a unifying theme. Many different stage shows are available for schools, some of which are listed below; the descriptions are taken from the Science Theater brochure:

  • Pressure (physics): Balloons, marshmallows, paper cups, and a bed of 1000 nails, are used to dispel some common misconceptions about force and pressure (grades 2-12).
  • Temperature (physics): Begins with the three states of matter and how heat can change matter from solid to liquid to gas. Students then observe the changes that occur to various objects when exposed to extreme temperatures via liquid nitrogen (grades 2-12).
  • Electricity (physics): Begins with electrostatics and then moves on to show how flowing electricity works. Van de Graaff generator, current, voltage, a simple circuit, and some fascinating electromagnetism demonstrations (grades 4-12).
  • Aerospace (engineering): Explores Bernoulli’s Principle and how it relates to flight. It starts off with the simple concept of pressure and flies into discussions of Newton’s laws and rockets (grades 7-12).
  • What is an Experiment? (chemistry): This chemistry-oriented show, designed for younger folks, introduces the audience to the concept of developing a theory, then testing it through the use of an experiment (grades K-8).
  • Microworld (biology): Using the video microscope, students are exposed to the tiny world of protozoa and bacteria. The concept of symbiosis is demonstrated using termites and their microbes.

The majority of Science Theater activities occur in elementary, middle and high schools. In recent years the greatest demand has come from elementary schools. Other common venues are at science fairs (such as the state finals of the Science Olympics competition), scouting events, and the Impression 5 Science Museum.

Organization. Science Theater is a student organization. The steering committee and presenters are undergraduate and graduate student volunteers. The positions and duties on the steering committee are listed below:

Director – Oversees all activities; funding and grant writing

Assistant Director – Assists the director; daily operations

Social Director – Coordinates social events and recruiting members

Biology Director – Schedules biology-related events; develops biology demos

Chemistry Director, Computer Science/Engineering Director, Physics and Electricity Director – same as Biology Director for these fields

Office Manager – Communications and financial tasks

Student volunteers are recruited as members of Science Theater at the MSU Student Organization Recruitment Fair at the beginning of each academic year. During the 2002/03-year, approximately 30 students were active presenters (working at least 8 hours on Science Theater activities).

When a student first joins Science Theater, he or she must go through a training regimen covering the presentations and safety issues. For each scheduled show, one presenter is designated as the coordinator for that site. The coordinator must be an experienced member of the group, who has previously presented at other sites the demonstrations that will be used in the show. The coordinator is responsible for rounding up a sufficient number of trained volunteers for the cast. The training can be obtained at large all-organization training sessions, or in one-to-one meetings with an experienced group member. Safety is always a concern with the science demos, and all training sessions pay special regard to the safety issues of each demo. After a student has participated in a show, he or she becomes eligible to act as coordinator for the same show at later sites. These training procedures illustrate how the student organization can function over an extended period of years although any one student participant would be involved for at most a few years while a student at MSU: the experienced juniors and seniors pass their knowledge on to the first and second year students.

Connection to the Department of Physics and Astronomy. The Department is the official sponsor of the Science Theater organization, although the group is essentially self-governing. There is a historical connection in that the founders of Science Theater were graduate students in physics and astronomy. Today the department provides space for Science Theater in the Abrams Planetarium Building, which is used for storage, meetings, and project development work. Also, the physics department provides the use of a van for travel to shows. Any student who may be a van driver must be included on the insurance policy. The department also assists with fund raising and various kinds of advice. In return, Science Theater can be called on to perform at outreach activities involving the physics department.

Science Theater has been an important component of science outreach for the College of Natural Science at MSU for the past twelve years. The Department of Physics and Astronomy and the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (at MSU) are engaged in numerous other outreach programs, e.g., for high-school teachers and students or the general public. Most of the departmental activities are conducted during the summer, and on campus. Science Theater is complementary to these other programs because it is available throughout the academic year and at sites such as schools in other cities and towns. The demand for Science Theater programs in schools continues to be high and the shows are generally well received by teachers and their students.

Science Theater is also a valuable experience for the MSU student volunteers. Giving presentations provides experience in appearing before an audience, and explaining science. Developing new demos, or equipment, is an opportunity for members of the group to think about science and be creative. A group spirit exists among the organization members, produced by working together on science topics in which all are interested. Finally, the student presenters come away from a successful show with a sense of accomplishment from raising the interest in science in the audience.

Further information and contacts for Science Theater can be obtained from the group’s web site at

Dan Stump
Department of Physics and Astronomy
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824-2320
Tel (517) 353 8662
Fax (517) 353 4500