University of Georgia
May 2016
Helping Communities
Flashes and bangs

Physics graduate student Lenny Shenje uses a small flame to explode a gas-filled balloon for students in the Thomas Lay after-school program. (Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

Flashes and bangs

Come and see the show: Service-learning course designed to reach and teach budding young scientists.

Show, don’t tell” is a familiar admonition that cuts across many fields.

Showing how something works can be a poignant tool for sharing scientific concepts. The classroom changes when students put on the safety glasses and cue the smoke.

Associate professor of physics Susanne Ullrich has embarked on a new method designed to teach and to reach young scientists with her service-learning course, Communicating Science Topics to Diverse Audiences: Service Learning through Science Shows.

“In the first part of the course, we talk about different topics in physics and astronomy based on recent scientific literature, journal articles and publications,” said Ullrich, who is implementing the course as part of her Service-Learning Fellowship. “The students select topics of interest to them and we discuss the science at an expert level, in class. Then they identify the underlying scientific concepts that they can explain to kids at the middle school level. And to do that, they make a show out of it.”

Sounds simple enough, and for Ullrich perhaps it is. The Physics 4900/6900 service-learning course evolved from a National Science Foundation grant-supported international collaboration in chemistry with colleagues Nick Barker and Vas Stavros at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England. “The grant included broader impact activities, and my collaborators had already established a science show and outreach program at the University of Warwick. When they came to visit Georgia, we decided to go into the schools here and do science shows to explain our research.”

Beginning in 2010, Ullrich and colleagues visited schools in the Athens area including Clarke County and Burney-Harris-Lyons middle schools, Oconee County Middle School, Madison County Middle School and North Oconee High School. Over four years, the team reached out to around 1,000 kids with their shows each year. The shows were focused on various aspects of research the scientists were doing in the lab at that time. “So lasers, vacuum, and some chemistry, looking at molecules,” Ullrich said.

By the time that particular NSF International Collaboration in Chemistry program ended, the team started to integrate graduate students into their science show performances. When an announcement went out about the UGA Service-Learning Fellows program, Ullrich applied and her course was one of 19 projects by UGA faculty members selected.

The course is designed to combine and develop different skills of the students.

“When we started the shows, as part of the grant, Nick Barker, who is an outreach professional, was the lead presenter who explained the science and concepts, while my research collaborator and I were doing the demonstrations,” Ullrich said.

For the course, the students are paired in groups of two or three, and while one is explaining the science, the others serve as their assistants in fulfilling the demos. “So for each topic there is one main presenter with one or two assistants. They switch roles and at some point everyone serves as a main presenter.”

At the beginning of the course, Ullrich provides the students with broad topics — astronomy, condensed matter physics, nanotechnology and material sciences, atomic and molecular physics, geophysics, earth and environmental sciences, and medical physics. The students then select specific topics that interest them and discuss some of the latest scientific discoveries. “It’s like a journal club. Looking through scientific literature and having discussions on the research.”

The students then develop ideas on how to talk about the science and explain the concepts to general audiences. The process involves a novel combination of teaching and learning for the students.

“Seeing the kids’ reactions when we set off an explosion is the best part! I like that most of our group is female so hopefully we can inspire young girls to become scientists in the future.”

— Samantha Dean

“We’re working on two things at once: How to read and understand the scientific literature, how to talk about it on an expert level, just among scientists,” Ullrich said. “And then we’re looking at it in a different way, figuring out how you explain some of these topics to non-experts. And that’s where the show comes in.”

“It’s kind of like the science shows you see on TV. We discuss the Earth’s atmosphere, pour liquid nitrogen into a bucket and add boiling water into it and you observe the formation of a huge cloud. We discuss alternative fuels, ignite hydrogen-filled balloons and set ethanol vapor on fire to demonstrate the energy release.”

The UGA students have responded to the challenge with enthusiasm that reflects the excitement of the middle school audiences.

“The class has definitely been an interesting experience and has shown me a new perspective of educating the public about science,” said Tara Cotten, a graduate student in physics and astronomy from Toledo, Ohio. “I am glad that we are also getting the chance to reach audiences that may have never had another opportunity to see how awesome science can be.”

“This is my first time both learning about and teaching physics,” said Samantha Dean, a second-year master’s student in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources from Fayetteville, Georgia. “Seeing the kids’ reactions when we set off an explosion is the best part! I like that most of our group is female so hopefully we can inspire young girls to become scientists in the future.”

“It has been a great experience to work with students from different backgrounds to create a show for kids so they can see science in a more animated way,” said Annika Bergmann, a first-year graduate student in physics and astronomy from Rostock, Germany.

Other UGA students participating in the science show performances include Alexander Cook, Mirabella Garrett, Lenny Shenje and Jose Sanchez-Rodriguez.

By the beginning of May, the students will have donned their lab coats for 50-minute “Big Science 6” shows at Athens Academy, Extra Special People, the 10th Anniversary Service-Learning Showcase, Thomas Lay after-school program, Burney-Harris-Lyons Middle School and the Pinewoods Library. Ullrich says one challenge of scheduling the shows is timing: The shows require time to develop, which makes them performance-ready by later in the semester when local schools are engaged with testing. As a consequence, Ullrich has begun including after-school programs as audiences.

One of the goals of this service-learning project is to have enough students trained for a sustainable, student-organized and student-run science roadshow program at UGA.

“So if we need a science show for a public event, either here on campus or if a school or community program contacts us, we are ready,” Ullrich said.

“I hope that our ‘Big Science 6’ show leaves our student audiences across Athens with a diverse picture of both science and scientists and inspires them to keep asking ‘why?’ and ‘how?’” Cotten said.

Ullrich, Cotten and other UGA students are showing them how to do just that.

— Alan Flurry, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences