APS PhysicsQuest

Rebecca Thompson-Flagg

The middle school years are critical in sparking a life long interest in physics yet there are few programs dedicated to this group of students. These “tweens” can be hard to reach. In 2005 APS celebrated the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s “Miracle Year” with the World Year of Physics. As part of this celebration an outreach project targeted specifically at the “tween” audience was born. This project, called “PhysicsQuest,” was so successful and filled such a great need that it was continued and is now in its 4th cycle. The primary goal of the project is to give kids a positive experience with physics. At this point in their education many students may not be clear about what physics is except that people, including their teacher, see it as “scary.” What a better way to overcome this fear in the “tweens” then to make their first understanding of physics a positive one.

The PhysicsQuest project sends out free kits containing all the equipment need for for fun physics experiments to over 11,000 classrooms around the country. As the students perform the activities they are helping to solve a mystery about a famous physicists. The kit includes an instruction manual that has information on the history of the year’s chosen physicist and the mystery being solved, open-ended instructions for the students and background information for teachers. This allows all teachers, even those that might not feel comfortable with physics, to be able to teach the information. In the past students have helped Einstein find his buried treasure, decoded a secret message sent by Ben Franklin, helped Marie Curie find her next class and this year the students are helping Nikola Tesla win the “war of the currents.” The idea of building a story around the activities serves two purposes. First it helps to keep the kids engaged throughout the whole set of activities. They have to complete all four to fully solve the mystery. Secondly it gives students the chance to learn a bit of physics history. Many teachers want to employ an interdisciplinary approach to learning and by adding a history component to the program it allows them to do this. Though solving the mystery is a reward in itself, APS gives a little added bonus. If classes successfully complete all four activities they can enter their answers online and if their answers are correct, they are entered to win iPods as well as gift certificates for classroom science supplies. Every class that enters answers online, regardless of whether or not their answers are correct, receives a certificate of participation.

The program has been a huge success. We began by sending out kits to 5,000 classrooms across the country and the program has now expanded to reach over 11,000 classrooms. Over 50% of teachers participating this year have participated in a previous year. Last year 100% of teachers surveyed rated their experience with PhysicsQuest as a positive one. The goal of the project is to give kids an exciting and positive experience with physics and these surveys suggest we are doing that job well. As with any project of this type we hope to reach the schools that are most in need. Last year 40% of the participating teachers surveyed were teaching in a school that received some sort of Title 1 funding. We also have a large amount of home schoolers participating in PhysicsQuest.

This year is the 4th iteration of PhysicsQuest. After 3 years of similarly styled books, this year’s manual capitalizes on the success of this summer’s comic book blockbusters and contains a comic with Nikola Tesla cast in the role of the super hero. The students help Tesla battle Edison in the War of the Currents by completing the four activities and hunting through the comic book pages to find pigeons that have stolen Tesla’s tools. This year’s kits have one activity that focused on index of refraction and three activities that explore electromagnetism. Many students have a difficult time understanding the topic of electromagnetism and teachers often have a hard time finding simple explanations and experiments so this kit is designed to fill that need. We have found through our surveys that teachers may begin the Quest but due to various reasons will not complete all of the activities. This year’s manual is constructed so that the comic book pages are broken up with a few pages before each activity. We are hoping that the desire to finish the comic will drive them to attempt all the activities. We will also distribute the comic on its own at both the NSTA and AAPT meetings this year.

To learn more about the PhysicsQuest program and to download past manuals please visit www.physicscentral.com/physicsquest. If you would like more information about how you can help please e-mail physicsquest@aps.org.

Rebecca Thompson-Flagg (thompson-flagg@aps.org) serves as Head of Public Outreach at the American Physical Society.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of APS.