Fun With a Rocket-Propelled Faculty

Armed with liquid nitrogen ice cream, physics faculty makes science a joy for young learners

Physics faculty are in demand in area schools: From left, Ronen Plesser,  Kristine Callan, Derek Leadbetter and Calvin Howell
Physics faculty are in demand in area schools: From left, Ronen Plesser, Kristine Callan, Derek Leadbetter and Calvin Howell

What better way to engage young kids in science than with cool, hands-on experiments? Especially when the reward is a homemade liquid nitrogen cookies-n-cream ice cream that tastes fantastic. Faculty in Duke's Department of Physics have been making kids laugh and learn for decades, and helping elementary, middle and high school teachers along the way.

"At the kindergarten and elementary school level, parents are often invited into the classroom to read to students and that is fun," said Ronen Plesser, associate professor of physics and math.  Plesser is a father of five who has been doing demos and teaching at elementary, middle school and high schools for more than 15 years. "But I thought teaching physics could just be so much more interesting to the kids. And it is. They love it and I do too."

Over time, Plesser and other physics faculty members have become part of a community of regional teachers and administrators in K-12 schools who are hungry for the hands-on demos and kits that Duke can share with their students. Sometimes the outreach works leads to serendipitous connections.

Plesser was central to the effort to establish small teaching observatory in the Duke Forest in 2002 specifically for outreach to the public and students of all ages. "We use the facility to teach introductory astronomy and some astrophysics, but it is primarily a public service opportunity. We do more than 15 events a year there with anywhere from 30 to 60 people each time. And we had a very big event just recently with the Venus transit."

Derek Leadbetter, who graduated from Duke’s engineering school in 1991, is now administrator of demo facilities and outreach for the department. His office is ground zero for the department’s inventory of demos and kits that faculty and students use in their outreach activities. He and Plesser were both amused to discover that years before he joined the department in 2007, Plesser had taken a photo of Leadbetter and his two children at the observatory during an outreach event.

Leadbetter inherited what he calls a treasure trove of demos collected and curated by Bill McNairy, the department's former demo room manager. It's a one stop shop, he says. He calls McNairy a genius for developing gee whiz demos that not only teach something, but are just great fun.

"There is lot of knowledge about what works well for different age groups encompassed in these demos," he said. "The kits and demos are self contained modules, and faculty members and students bring their own personality to the delivery. Plus, the demo kits allow us to do things in schools that otherwise would not be possible because the right equipment isn't available."

"Taking physics to kids is such a natural thing for all of us," said Professor Calvin Howell. "First as parents, but also as scientists. I think we all feel that it is part of our responsibility to advance science education, and part of our job to teach whenever we can. It is a part of our culture here and very much driven by individual efforts."

There are nearly 500 demos available, with names such as Monkey Gun, Pen and Embroidery Hoop, Stomp Rocket, Two Balloon Surprise or Hero's Fountain. Behind the fun are lessons on mechanics, fluid mechanics, waves and oscillations, thermodynamics, electricity, magnetism and optics. A website provides instructions for using each demo, videos, and an online reservation system.

"Having the infrastructure we do, with a stock of vetted demos available, makes it very easy to do, and many faculty members take advantage of the opportunity," said Howell.

It is also increasingly common for federal research grants to require some form of outreach to K-12 schools, and this provides additional resources and opportunities for students. Faculty members are also engaged in teacher training programs.

The department encourages its students to take part. At one point 10 years ago, Plesser found himself with much more demand for school visits than he could handle. So he invited some of his students go on the trips to help him, and eventually the students ran the whole show. "We discovered that our physics majors not only enjoyed it, but that by teaching, they were 'forced' to learn the material much better. That made them better at physics and much more excited about their own studies," he said.

Duke Science at the National Mall in DC
At the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Kanchan Chauhan teaches young students about the principles of physics.

Leadbetter took four Duke students to the National Mall in Washington, DC, last year to participate in the USA Science & Engineering Festival. "We worked in shifts running different demos because there was a constant stream of people. The students loved it and we hope to do it again."

Today, Duke physics students regularly make their way to elementary, middle school and high school classrooms in the region. "I just send out an email to our students when we get a request, and we always have a lot of volunteers," said Leadbetter. "We train them and off they go. We don't really even keep track of all the activities anymore because there are so many. It is just part of what we do."

Graduate students take a strong role as well. Kristine Callan, a fifth-year student working with Professor Dan Gauthier, completed a master's degree in physics and spent two years teaching high school before deciding to return to Duke and complete her Ph.D. She plans to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in physics education when she is done.

"I realized that I really enjoy teaching I hope to pursue a teaching-oriented university position in the future," she said. Among other events, Callan took part in the Physics for Female event last fall, and the North Carolina Science Festival in April, running demos on circuits and energy generation and storage. In another experiment, a disappearing beaker demo teaches kids about index of refraction, and a spinning wheel explains conservation of angular momentum.

Callan started "tagging along" with Plesser and Leadbetter on outreach trips back in 2005 and is now an integral part of the core support team. She hopes to take part in training students for an upcoming project called Duke Physics Share.

Duke Physics Share is a formal collaboration with the Durham Public School system and will place Duke physics majors to Durham schools not already served by the Duke Durham Neighborhood partnership. The department's main collaborator is Benjamin Downing, science coordinator with the Durham Public School system.

"I actually met Benji when he was a young teacher in training program years ago," said Plesser. "It was through a Duke-affiliated program called Teachers and Scientists Collaborating (TASC) funded by the National Science Foundation program. I was one of the scientists who hung around providing an in-depth science content resource as needed, and helped these young teachers learn how to teach science, and it helped me get connected with teachers in the area."

The new program will launch this fall, and Leadbetter and Plesser estimate as many as half of the department's undergraduate majors will participate at some point. "The effort is supported by Duke for a modest $10k that will be used primarily for Duke WeCars to give students transportation out to these schools," said Leadbetter.

Plesser emphasizes that the benefit of the program will go both ways. "Our students get to practice some very important skills -- teaching and communicating, project management and team work, public speaking and they also deeply learn and understand their physics."

The team plans to videotape the demos, and make the module syllabi and teaching tools all available online so that other teachers can leverage the project for their own students.

The department had also made a point of reaching out to area universities who want to offer more research opportunities to their students. For one, Duke has joint research funding with the historically black college and universities North Carolina Central University and North Carolina A&T.

New outreach requests come in all the time. "Someone knows someone with a connection to the department and we try to offer them whatever works best for their education needs," said Howell.

For example, for several years faculty have supported the Boy Scouts of America by offering the Nuclear Science merit badge. "We teach them about radiation shielding as one of the activities, and the boys are very interested and curious," said Howell.

"As the chair, I am very pleased that colleagues in physics are active in many outreach activities together with students and staff. As a department, we will continue to strive and do more in reaching out to the public about the excitement of sciences, and about the science we are doing," said Haiyan Gao, the Henry Newson Professor of Physics.  "Educating the next generation of scientists and engineers is crucial for the future of our country in this ever more competitive world for talents and innovations. To maintain our nation's competitive edge in science and technology, having more K-12 students interested in science is essential for a healthy pipeline."