• brenucsb twitter avatar
    Get ready for holiday dinner chit chat - Read these five tips on navigating #climate change conversations… https://t.co/Ze2wW6RSJN
    12 hours 33 min ago
  • UCSBgauchos twitter avatar
    UCSB Takes 2-Game Winning Streak into Friday Night Thunderdome Matchup Against Prairie View https://t.co/X2Bq5NQMHa
    1 day 2 hours ago
  • UCSBLibrary twitter avatar
    Thankful for beautiful sunsets that paint the sky. Safe travels and Happy Thanksgiving, #Gauchos! https://t.co/pz7GrusWaF
    1 day 7 hours ago
  • brenucsb twitter avatar
    Americans discarded the equivalent of 6 million #turkeys over #Thanksgiving last year. This year, see how you can h… https://t.co/BHWeNKZXNs
    1 day 8 hours ago
  • ucsantabarbara twitter avatar
    What's new this week on #GauchoCourses? Comm 178: The Dark Side of Comm! https://t.co/RW08u8Ayve
    1 day 11 hours ago
  • AS_UCSB twitter avatar
    Happy Thanksgiving! https://t.co/S57dk4gbse
    1 day 11 hours ago

A New Kind of Circus

UCSB’s Department of Physics outreach program shows elementary school students just how fun science can be
Wednesday, February 11, 2015 - 14:30
Santa Barbara, CA
UCSB's Physics Circus at Monte Vista Elementary School in Santa Barbara

Liquid nitrogen_ENH.jpg

Liquid nitrogen demo

UCSB Physics Circus volunteers freeze various objects in order to examine properties of temperature.

Photo Credit: 

Spencer Bruttig

BIKE TIRE_ENH.jpg

A volunteer spins a suspended bicycle wheel to explain angular momentum. The wheel in motion wants to stay upright. 

Photo Credit: 

Spencer Bruttig

SLINKY_ENH.jpg

Sound wave demonstration

A slinky is used to demonstrate how sound waves move as well as to illustrate volume and echo.

Photo Credit: 

Spencer Bruttig

It was hard to tell who was having more fun at Monte Vista Science Night — the grade-schoolers, their parents or the dozen student volunteers from UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Physics, who had turned the Santa Barbara elementary school’s multipurpose room into a physics lab with a host of action-packed demonstration experiments designed to promote science education.

Welcome to Physics Circus.

Named after Jearl Walker’s book “The Flying Circus of Physics,” the program features six stations that cover conservation of linear and angular momentum, electricity, magnetism, air pressure, sound and temperature.

“The reason I do this is because of the kids,” said graduate student Zachary Geiger, the coordinator of Physics Circus. “I think that curiosity is really important to nurture in children, and our goal is to inspire the next generation of inquiring minds — kids hopefully destined for college — to be successful and to ask questions about the world around them.”

At Monte Vista’s Science Night, which also included displays from other UCSB departments, kids of all ages hovered around the Physics Circus’s liquid nitrogen display to watch flowers, bananas and even racquetballs freeze. Using a frozen banana to hammer a nail into a piece of wood, the UCSB volunteers explained how the fruit’s water content allowed it to freeze so readily. Then the group moved to the center of the room to test the elasticity of a room-temperature racquetball against that of its frozen counterpart. One bounced, the other shattered.

UCSB’s Jacob Hines, a third-year physics major who has been conducting Physics Circus demonstrations since last fall, explained why: “The molecules in the rubber don’t want to move when they’re cold; they want to stay close together, so I can’t bend the rubber as easily. It’s very interesting to do experiments with things at different temperatures because all sorts of properties can change.”

While the kids were having fun, they also were learning about phase transitions: liquids turning into solids or gases, gases changing to liquid. Elementary school students may know about ice melting into water or boiling water becoming steam, Geiger explained, but it’s not likely they’ve ever seen liquid nitrogen, even in their classrooms.

“We actually get to bring something that is about 300 degrees Fahrenheit below zero into a school setting,” he said. “This is something foreign to children. Maybe the coldest thing they’ve ever seen is dry ice, which is about minus 110 degrees Fahrenheit.”

When Physics Circus began two decades ago, science nights were not as common as they are today. “There were one or two schools that had any sort of science night,” recalled UCSB physics professor Jean Carlson, who created the program with then-graduate student Abigail Reid. “What I’ve seen over the course of my involvement is that this idea of science night and involving family in science activities at the schools has grown enormously in our community.”

Each quarter, Physics Circus visits eight to 10 schools, mostly at science nights. Geiger likened the program to a magic show. Both magicians and physicists do magic tricks, he noted, but physicists want to explain exactly how it was done. “We get to bring physics to life and foster kids’ inquisitive spirit,” he said. “I really like seeing their moment of wow.”

“Physics Circus is a way for our students to get involved and experience sharing their enthusiasm for science with the community,” Carlson added. “The kids and their families respond to the science, but I also see graduate students and undergraduates from the physics department responding to the excitement of the young students.

“Elementary students respond in a whole different way than college students when it comes to getting involved in science,” she continued. “You can see all the freshness and newness of science in their young faces.”

Contact Info: 

Julie Cohen
julie.cohen@ucsb.edu
(805) 893-7220

Topics: