Physics Outreach Program brings experiments to local youth

Through the Physics Outreach Program (POP), Binghamton University students have the opportunity to instill excitement and enthusiasm about science in local elementary school children.

Roughly a dozen BU students participate in POP, hosting an eight-week program in different local elementary schools each semester. Student volunteers perform and explain simple but entertaining physics experiments in order to pique the children’s interest in science.

Each groups holds a unique presentation featuring a different theme.

“One thing that is popular with the kids, yet relatively simple, is the Van de Graaff generator,” said Kyle Verspoor, co-director of POP and a graduate student studying physics. “It’s a generator that generates static electricity so that when people with long hair touch it, their hair sticks out in all directions.”

At the end of each session, the presenters put on a grand finale, which has included making ice cream with liquid nitrogen and keeping a bicycle in motion with fire extinguishers and without pedaling.

Verspoor said that the feedback about the program has been very positive so far.

“The kids all love it and so do their parents,” Verspoor said. “They usually make big cards and send them back as a thank you gesture.”

Mark Stephens, co-director for POP and an equipment and laboratory consultant in the physics department, said the main goal of the program is to get children excited about science.

“We’re not trying to educate them about science necessarily, this is what’s considered science enrichment,” Stephens said. “It’s easier to excite little kids and inspire them. We need to take advantage of that while we can.”

Last semester, POP worked with Vestal Hills Elementary School. The first session of this semester is scheduled for Feb. 27 at African Road Elementary School.

POP originated in spring 2009 when Stephens was approached by the parent of a student at African Road Elementary School who asked him to do physics demonstrations since Stephens had been involved with outreach programs before.

“I envisioned a lecture-type program on a stage, but that really wasn’t what she wanted,” Stephens said. “And she wanted us to come back more than once. I later ran into an ex-TA who needed some physics credits and suggested an independent study working with the outreach program. We decided to do a small group format and take kids and divide them into groups with different demos to work for a few minutes and rotate.”

When POP expanded to Vestal Hills Elementary School in 2011, the program’s enrollment grew to 120, one-third of the total student population. This moved the program to try to include other sciences such as chemistry and geology, in order not to run out of ideas for the increase in student attendance.

Both Stephens and Verspoor are actively trying to recruit more presenters and participants for the program.

“If anyone is interested in joining, they don’t have to be a science major,” Verspoor said. “We can train you even if you don’t know physics well, as long as you like and can deal with kids.”

Stephens said the program is a community effort at its core that depends on volunteers, parents and children.

“It’s not just us going there to do the program, it’s a collaborative program,” Stephens said. “It’s teamwork, the community is coming together to do this. Volunteers in the program only do the presenting.”