Physics Students Create Quite a Circus

By Sandy Hicks

UTEP News Service

Copper weights dangling from the earlobe of a giggling elementary school student is more scientific than one might think.

Whoever said physics was stuffy or boring has obviously never attended a “physics circus,” an interactive physics demonstration that UTEP students have presented to the community since the late '80s.Associate Professor Eric Hagedorn, Ph.D., and his physics students prepare for the USA Science and Engineering Festival in April, where they used jewelry to interest young studnets in physics. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News ServiceAssociate Professor Eric Hagedorn, Ph.D., and his physics students prepare for the USA Science and Engineering Festival in April, where they used jewelry to interest young studnets in physics. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

Every year, new members of the Society of Physics Students (SPS) quickly become pros at disseminating the power of physics in a fun and quirky way to audiences of all ages at elementary, junior high and high schools, as well as the Insights El Paso Science Museum.

The physics circus “is in high demand,” said Eric Hagedorn, Ph.D., associate professor of physics and SPS faculty adviser.

For the second time in its history, the UTEP organization was invited to bring a team to the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington D.C. April 28 and 29. The festival's goal is to reinvigorate the interest of the nation’s youth in the fields of science, engineering, physics, technology and math through hands-on science activities that elevate awareness and create enthusiasm.

When the UTEP SPS attended the festival’s inaugural event in 2010, they engaged festival-goers in fun demos with rotating objects, standing waves and  artificial lightning. They even drove a nail into wood with a banana frozen in liquid nitrogen.

“That was a really frozen banana,” Hagedorn said with a laugh.

This second festival was an extension of what the SPS does at any physics circus they present–with a twist. With the exception of Hagedorn, this year’s event was staffed by an all-female crew of physics students and faculty. The theme focused on the relation between physics and jewelry – yes, jewelry.

The idea for the theme came straight from the top. Vivian Incera, Ph.D., chair of the physics department, was in a local jewelry store seeking a watch repair when the idea came to her. 

Chatting about their vocations, Incera told store owner and gemologist Susan Eisen that physics is related to everything – even jewelry.

“Most jewelry designers don’t realize they are applying the concept of center-of-mass in order to make a necklace hang in a properly balanced way,” Incera said. “But they are.”

Eisen was so impressed with the idea that she offered to supply interactive materials for the team to use at the festival in Washington. She gave the students screw-back earrings to help measure the elasticity of the earlobe when copper weights were attached, and gemstones and metals for determining electrical conductivity of different materials.Young students in Washington D.C. measure the elasticity of their earlobes with the help of UTEP physics students.Young students in Washington D.C. measure the elasticity of their earlobes with the help of UTEP physics students.

“People were drawn to our booth by the hundreds,” said Felicia Manciu, Ph.D. , associate professor of physics. “It doesn’t take complicated displays – kids love shiny things – and these small, easy set-ups of jewelry-themed activities were a hit with boys, girls and parents alike.”

The festival in D.C. was open to the public, and Hagedorn was thrilled at the diversity of those in attendance.

“It was a great crowd, with a ‘high geek density’ of course,”  he said with a laugh. “But we engaged with science lovers of all ages, and it was great!”

An unexpected pleasure for the SPS students and faculty at the festival were the many UTEP alumni in attendance who were thrilled to see their alma mater exhibiting alongside high-profile universities, research institutes, professional science societies and high tech companies.

“It was a very proud moment for us,” Hagedorn said.

 Manciu and department lecturer Jessica Dunmore, Ph.D., credit Incera’s management style and strong support of community involvement for the fresh air of interest blowing through the halls of the physics department.  They believe Incera has been the shot in the arm the department needed.

“She’s amazing,” Manciu said. “Since she has been chair, she has elevated the visibility of the department and initiated faculty ideas for branches of specialization. The whole department has caught her enthusiastic spirit.”

Hagedorn agreed wholeheartedly.

“Recruitment has gone from 15 to roughly 80 majors in just three years – due largely to a great department head,” Hagedorn said. “Her support and encouragement of outreach activities like our department open house and the USA Science and Engineering Festival is part of what draws so many new students and is instrumental in inspiring young women to pursue physics.” 

Faculty members believe that exploring unlikely themes in their interactive demos and taking an all-female team to public events like this year’s festival will pique the interest of young girls who might not normally consider a career in the traditionally male field of physics. They all agree that women as well as male students need to know that a physicist can branch out to careers as diverse as a fighter pilot, college professor, video-game designer or product research and developer.

All these students, whether male or female, benefit from participating in public interactive events,  Hagedorn said.

“Exercises like this force them to articulate their physics knowledge into everyday language,” he said.  “It builds confidence they will need later in their careers.”

Students are not the only beneficiary of sharing the beauty of physics through public interaction. Events like the festival give UTEP and the physics department nationwide exposure, which in turn recruits new students to the program. More students mean more of them eventually pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees, which positively impacts UTEP’s pursuit of Tier One status, department officials said.

One of Hagedorn’s goals is for students to conduct these physics circuses independent of faculty supervision, and he says they are quickly learning to do just that.

“We’d like to eventually have multiple teams prepared and on call, ready to answer the many requests we get to bring our own special brand of physics awareness to their school or group.”