St. Olaf physics students help little learners explore big questions
St. Olaf College physics students spend a lot of time thinking about the universe’s big questions, but lately they found a way to repackage those big questions into at-home science kits for smaller learners.
Lily Nestor ’23 and her team worked on a trajectory and gravity kit that explains Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity (yes, really) in bite size pieces by using a sheet and golf ball to simulate gravity. It also explains trajectory using a face mask as a makeshift slingshot.
Nestor, who is working toward a career in the space industry, explains, “I can see this work encouraging interest in science at a young age because it takes a concept that might seem complicated or hard to visualize and lets you see and manipulate it. With our project, future scientists can — quite literally — take orbits into their own hands.”
A total of five kits were built by students in Professor Eric Hazlett’s Analytical Physics III class. They can be assembled using only household materials and are intended to give students a chance to grow their curiosity at home, especially as many students are missing out on in-person science classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These kits are targeted to late elementary to middle school students, but the material has enough depth that anyone can explore and use them,” Hazlett says. The kits also span a variety of interests and lessons, with kits for examining sound waves, trajectory and gravity, pendulums, and more.
This type of community-focused project is in keeping with the course’s Academic Civic Engagement component. The program, funded by the David L. and Margery Ostrom Scheie Endowment, gives students a chance to give back to local communities and apply lessons from the Hill in the outside world. At St. Olaf 60 percent of students take an ACE course during their time on campus, totalling some 600 students per year across 50 community partners. This course worked with the Northfield Public Library, which will be distributing the kits to families in the community.
For Hazlett, this experiential learning opportunity is the perfect complement to children’s natural curiosity. “I hope that people realize that science is around us and we interact with it every day. People — and especially kids — are great at asking questions, and hopefully the kits will inspire more questions, answer a few of the questions, and ideally give people the chance to explore and figure out the answers for themselves.”
People — and especially kids — are great at asking questions, and hopefully the kits will inspire more questions, answer a few of the questions, and ideally give people the chance to explore and figure out the answers for themselves.Visiting Assistant Professor of Physics Eric Hazlett
Cassie Fix ’23 worked with her team to build a bouncy ball kit to explain types of energy and the laws of energy conservation. “It was meaningful making these kits for children in the community because not many kids know about what physics actually is,” she says. “Showing how physics can be integrated into many cool things in life was a fun experience.”
In addition to these two projects, other students focused their efforts to build kits that explain light waves, sound waves, and even pendulums. To do so, they used everyday materials like marshmallows, masking tape, rubber bands, and a wooden spoon. Each kit includes the necessary instructions to get started, a primer for parents or teachers, and a discussion of the forces students are observing.
It was meaningful making these kits for children in the community because not many kids know about what physics actually is. Showing how physics can be integrated into many cool things in life was a fun experience.Cassie Fix ’23
This is a fantastic learning experience for St. Olaf students, too. “It gives the students a chance to be the authority on a subject and share that subject with others,” Hazlett says. “Sometimes there is a misconception that you have to get an advanced degree and be a professor to be the authority and to identify as a scientist. This shows that they already are scientists and physicists and just need to share it with the world.”
As for what comes next, Hazlett is excited to continue developing this idea with future St. Olaf physics students. His goal is to translate the kits into additional languages in order to reach more students. “Next year we will refine the current kits and create new ones. Ideally over the years we’ll create a library of kits that can be disseminated to a variety of locations or can be open access to all,” he says. “I am very proud of all of the hard work and creativity the students showed, and I’m excited about the ideas the students bring to the table next year.”
You can read more about the kits and find the instructions here.