BWISER and summer outreach

One of the Wooster summer traditions is the BWISER science camp for 7th and 8th grade girls.  The physics department has been responsible for an evening of demos for the campers since before I came to the College in 2003, and I’ve taken over responsibility for running our highly-choreographed rotation of nearly 100 girls through seven different demos over the course of two hours.  It’s quite an event!

Usually we have at least six summer research students on campus who are the ones actually presenting the demos to the campers. This year, although we have a lot of students doing research for the summer, only two are on campus!  So, I had to put out a plea for volunteers and was so impressed with the awesome response from students who were near enough to Wooster to help.

Popi and Carlos at the Sound demo

For one hour, the BWISER girls cycle through five shorter demos of about 12 minutes each — these are Sound, Polarization, Total Internal Reflection, Holography and Spectral Lines. For the other hour, the girls spend a half an hour building squeeze rockets and half an hour contemplating the vastness of the universe and communication at the speed of light watching Powers of 10 and the opening sequence to Contact.

Building squeeze rockets is best with lots of stickers and glitter tape.

The squeeze rockets have turned out to be a great alternative to the Moon Cratering experiment that we used to do.  Moon Cratering was a lot of fun, but quite a mess, since it involved dropping different mass balls from different heights into a vat of flour with a fine coating of either tempera paint or cocoa powder. Squeeze rockets has pretty much all the fun of Moon Craters plus glitter tape, and none of the mess.

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For the last two or three years, I’ve also been doing a session for the BWISER Alumnae camp (for 8th graders coming back a second time to camp). This year I had the alumnae for longer than previously, so I decided to do sessions on Light as a Wave, and Light as a Particle.  I’ve been doing optics and imaging for the camp already, so the Light as a Wave stuff mostly came from that, but the new Light as a Particle activities were a lot of fun!  The sun print paper in particular was really popular, with some very creative arrangements of leaves and flowers to make some beautiful prints.  I only have pictures here of the prints as they are being developed in the sun; after this step you develop the paper in water and the colors invert so that the paper turns dark blue wherever it was exposed to the sun and white wherever there was shadow.

In addition to the BWISER outreach events, I also did a one-day special session for the West Holmes Summer Science Sessions.  Last year was the first year I did this program — I was worried that I didn’t have enough cool stuff and the night before the program, I built the GIANT kaleidoscope, which is now one of my favorite demos! All it takes are three full-length mirrors (like you would hang on a door) and a serious amount of duct tape.  What you get is awesome, especially when there are small children around to make crazy faces.

Kaleidoscope crazy face

Kaleidoscopic shirt and shorts

The kaleidoscope was a hit again at the Summer Science Session, as were the Light as a Particle activities.  Besides the sun paper, I also talk about ultraviolet light, including why it’s more dangerous than visible light, since one photon has more energy and so can be more damaging.  And, we got some “secret message” pens that write with ink only visible under UV light.  Turns out, the pens can write not only on paper but also on skin.  I’m sure you can see where this is headed.

UV temporary tattoos

Sooner or later, it had to happen — the combination of the kaleidoscope and the UV pens.


In the interest of safety, I’ll just add that the students had previously tested this pair of sunglasses and found that they did in fact block UV.  Generally you should avoid shining a UV flashlight into someone’s eyes.

Overall, these different outreach programs reached around 120 kids this summer!  Hopefully they all still remember my main take-home message: Physics is Awesome!

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