ISU Department of Physics

Demonstration Road Show

and Teacher Workshops



K-12 education is of great importance due to its effect on the development of future citizens.  With the advance of technology, scientific literacy is becoming essential for adequate participation in our society.  There is concern that the U.S. is falling behind other countries in science education, especially at the K-8 grade levels.  There is also a common attitude among students that science is too hard, too boring, and not worth the effort.  Teachers have a great deal of difficulty preventing the onset of this attitude, and little hope of reversing it once it takes hold. This is partly due to a socialization which places little regard for, or importance, on scholarship in science and math.  If significant progress in scholarship is to be made in these areas, it must be at the expense of preconceived notions of unimportance and difficulty.  However, limitations in the training pre-service teachers are given to teach science is also to blame.

K-8 teachers are in the best position to influence the attitudes of future citizens towards science, and to encourage people to consider careers in science.  The training pre-service K-8 teachers receive in science and in the teaching of science has not kept pace with the increasingly technical nature of our society.  Frequently, future teachers receive no education after the ninth grade in many science topics that they are required to teach.  As either cause or effect of this, most K-8 teachers are uncomfortable with one or more areas of science, and are often reluctant to teach them.  The greatest discomfort and lack of preparation is in the physical sciences.

Members of the Department of Physics at Idaho State University have decided to help remedy this situation, at least in Southeast Idaho, through a program of science demonstration shows and teacher workshops at local elementary, middle, and high schools. Elementary schools provide an excellent platform for outreach programs for several reasons. For the most part, students at this level have yet to form irreversible attitudes about science and math, and positive experiences at this age are more likely to influence academic behavior. Also, larger numbers of students can be reached at one time due to the smaller school size and the frequency of all-school assemblies, and support from local PTA's is likely due to active parent involvement at the elementary level.  Middle schools allow for more focused presentations, since science education is usually directed by a smaller group of teachers speciallizing in that area.  More in-depth and hands-on presentations are possible in high schools, since the number of students typically studying a specific topic is often small.

The primary purpose of the demonstration shows is to spark interest in science through exciting and informative exhibitions. Due to limitations in school district budgets and lack of resources, students are not often exposed to flashy and spectacular demonstrations, and rarely get to do more than read about the more exciting aspects of science. Fortunately, the Department of Physics at ISU has the resources, in demonstration equipment and in knowledgeable faculty and students, to provide an exciting educational experience.

To provide much needed teacher training, every demo show is preceded by a short teacher workshop. The material is closely matched to school curricula, and extreme care is taken not to discourage or threaten teachers uncomfortable with science.  Prior to a presentation, teachers at the school are contacted to find out what science topics they are covering, and what science text they use.  This determines the theme for the demo show and the workshop.  Available demonstrations have been chosen to illustrate topics recommended and required by the Idaho State Board of Education, and to address goals of the National Science Education Standards, as well as for visual impact.  The demonstrations to be conducted are discussed, written descriptions of each demonstration are distributed and recommendations from teachers on how to best integrate the material presented into the current curricula are taken.  Materials are also distributed on simple activities and demonstrations for each grade that can help integrate the show into topics they are covering in their classes that week.  This information, including demonstration descriptions, is cross-referenced to specific chapters in the science texts that are used at each school that is visited.  Lists of books on science activities and a list of educational web site addresses are also distributed.  Teachers are encouraged at this time to contact ISU faculty whenever they have questions on science and science activities.

The demonstration shows each last between 45 and 90 minutes, with one or more presentations of the same show per school visit. five different shows have been prepared for presentation, titled "States of Matter", "Forces and Motion", "Electricity and Magnetism", "Sound and Waves", and "Light, Lasers, and Illusions".  Each show consists of a series of demonstrations of physical phenomena connected by a common theme.  Every presentation begins with a discussion of science and what scientists do, as well as the popping of helium and hydrogen filled balloons with a lighter.  Although many of the demonstrations are at first impression destructive, extensive precautions are taken to assure audience safety, and to limit the amount of clean-up necessary after each presentation.  All demonstrations will be explained at a level appropriate to the audience.

Rural schools are specifically targeted, since they typically have lower budgets for special events and assemblies, and continuing education opportunities teachers are more limited.

The States of Matter show contains demonstrations on the nature of solids, liquids and gasses. Air is shown to have weight with the use of giant balloons, and why things float or sink is explained with the use of an explosion or two. How airplanes fly, curve balls curve and how houses explode with the passage of a tornado is illustrated with the use of a giant leaf-blower, a shop-vac, toilet paper and a few styrofoam cups. The effects of the presence and absence of air pressure is demonstrated with Madelung hemispheres, tire rubber and a vacuum chamber with such memorable tricks as the expanding marshmallow man and the attack of the red-striped shaving cream worms. Phase changes are demonstrated with the use of collapsing cans, more giant balloons, a cork cannon and a few more explosions. Liquid nitrogen is used to demonstrate volume and materials changes with temperature, and to explain the art of crepe making. Time is also taken to adequately blast the audience with a giant vortex generator.

In the accompanying teacher workshop, teachers are shown how to illustrate pressure with several experiments using plastic pop bottles, balloons, and water.  They are shown how to use a 60 cc syringe to make a miniature vacuum chamber.  Experiments on density and buoyancy, temperature and heat, and the differences between the states of matter are discussed.  Recipes for glue and borax “goop” are distributed, and several Bernoulli experiments are performed with hair dryers, straws, and styrofoam cups.

The Forces and Motion show involves a bit more audience participation and focuses on demonstrations of kinematics. Inertia is discussed with the help of toilet paper, a few bricks, the old tablecloth trick, and a new trick with raw eggs, water glasses and a broom. Action and Reaction are demonstrated with skateboards, a Culligan water jug, fire extinguishers and a wet combination of bicycle pumps, plastic pop bottles, and a few rain bird accessories that is sure to leave at least one professor dripping. The ISU's own "Puncture-Pedic" (bed of nails) is used to demonstrate force per area. As a further demonstration of inertia, a professor or assistant will lie on the Puncture-Pedic with a stack of cement blocks on his chest (this trick does not work as well with women) and allow them to be smashed with a sledge-hammer. Student volunteers will fling a few raw eggs in order to illustrate momentum and a giant axe will also be flung to illustrate center of mass motion. To top things off, a favorite torture device, the "Rotating Chair" will be used to demonstrate angular momentum, together with a series of mystifying bicycle wheel tricks and teh dreadded "Flying Buzz-Saw".

In the Forces and Motion teacher workshop, teachers are given several cheap energy toys,  a water rocket and launcher, and a stomp rocket launcher made from a pop bottle and pvc pipe.  Toys are used to discuss Newton’s Laws and energy.  As with all teacher workshops, teacher are encouraged to involve students in inquiry-based interactive activities and experiments.  When time allows, teachers are guided through examples of activities using these techniques.

The Electricity and Magnetism show covers electrostatics, electricity, magnetism, and their interrelations.  The concept of charge is introduced with balloons, fur, plastic pipe, silk, glass, ping pong balls, soap bubbles, and ISU student volunteers running around with styrofoam balls.  Students are guaranteed a hair-raising experience with our Van de Graaff generator.  Magnetism and its relation to moving charges is demonstrated with electromagnets, electron beams, and simple motors and generators.  To caution the audience on the dangers of electricity a pickle is electrocuted.  The show is topped off with electrifying exhibitions of a Jacob's ladder, a rail gun, and a Tesla coil.

For the Electricity and Magnetism workshop, teachers build electroscopes and use them in electrostatics experiments.  The connection between electricity and magnetism is shown with a battery, wire, and a compass.  Teachers are also shown how to build electromagnets, simple motors, and how to connect a cheap dc motor to a headphone jack of a radio to make a speaker.

The Sound and Waves presentation begins with a laser light and sound show that serves to introduce sound as a vibration.  Other demos include waves on springs, a 20' torsion wave machine, singing rods, vibrating metal plates plates, hoot tubes, resonance boxes, and a wine glass tune.  Short lengths of pvc are handed out to students, who “pop” them on their hands to perform a simple tune.  A wine glass illuminated with a strobe light is shattered with sound.  A laptop computer with Fourier synthesis software is used to demonstrate the recipe of sounds, and why you can tell the difference between a trumpet and a flute when thy play the same note.  An 8' tube with flames that dance to music is used as a finale.

In the Sound and Waves workshop, teachers are given slinkys, a set of the pvc “poppers”, a set of golf-tube “boom whackers”, and a coffee can drum and mirror they can use for their own laser light and sound show.  They are guided through an experiment with yarn to illustrate the effects of tension, length, and mass on the speed of waves and the pitch of the sound carried by the waves.  Also demonstrated are cup and string phones, film can crumhorns, soda straw reed pipes, and soda straw torsional wave machines.  As in all of the teacher workshops, teachers construct these themselves if there is time.  Otherwise, samples are distributed, demonstrated, and discussed.

 The Light, Lasers, and Illusions presentation covers the nature of  light, our perception of light and color, optical illusions, atomic and molecular spectra, lasers and fiber optics.  The show begins with a basic explaination of the nature of light and vision, including reflection, refraction, and our perception of light and color illustrated with lasers.  Amazing illusions are presented and explained in terms of persistence of vision, the convincing nature of some reflections, and how our brains process images.  Yes, smoke and mirrors are used. Where rainbows come from is discussed, as are colors beyond the rainbow, specifically ultraviolet and infra red.  Prism, or rainbow glasses, are distributed to the audience for demonstrations of light spectra, including atomic and molecular spectra.  The presentation ends in a finale of laser light set to music.

In the Light, Lasers and Illusions workshop, teachers are provided with a set of mirrors, LED lights, candles, a glass plate, an acrylic rod, diffraction grating slides, and a laser and shown how to use these to demonstrate the nature of light and color.   The laser, mirrors, and glass are used to demonstrate reflection, and for a set of geometry exercises.  The candles and glass are used to set  up a classic illusion, and the LEDs and laser are used to demonstrate the nature of color.  The LEDs, laser, and diffraction grating slides are used to show the spectra of light.  Teachers are also shown how to use the acrylic rod, glass jars, beakers, water, and mineral oil to demonstrate refraction and how fiber optic cables carry signals of light.  

The Department of Physics at ISU and the ISU SPS has been, and is willing to continue to donate time, effort and money to this endeavor. Because of aggressive efforts in the pursuit of external funding, smaller rural schools have been serviced free of charge since 1997.  The ISU College Science and Engineering is currently funding the program through May 2011.  Requests for additional funding from the Idaho Community Foundation and the J.R Simplot Education Foundation are currently pending.  In the absence of external funding, Schools hosting the shows are requested to donate $100 per show to help cover costs in expendable supplies and to help with a fund for equipment repair and replacement.  If two shows are requested for the same visit, a donation of $175 will be requested. Significant community support has also been provided through continuing donations of expendable supplies from Norco.

Members of the Department of Physics have performed over 500 demonstration shows at southeast Idaho schools since the beginning of the project in March 1994.  The total attendance at these shows is estimated at over 73,000.  The demonstration shows are quite popular, indicating a need for this kind of service in southeast Idaho.  Due to the limited time Department of Physics faculty and students have available, between thirty and fifty visits per year are currently possible. As of August 2010, the waiting list for visits was over two years long.