As in each of the past six years, I co-organized a Physics + Human Physiology day camp for 11th graders for a week in July, in which we explored wide swathes of science and also learned a bit about how college works. (It’s part of the SAIL umbrella of camps — see here and here.) It was fun; everything went smoothly, and the students loved the week. Some highlights:
As you see, ours is a thematically very diverse camp. The ice cream refers to an activity led by Eric Corwin and his lab, in which they made liquid nitrogen ice cream, which allows one to discuss the microstructured phases of matter in foods, and also gives one the chance to make ice cream flavored with garlic, avocado, cream of mushroom soup, and other non-standard ingredients. (Mushrooms were apparently nightmare-inducing.) In past years, my lab has done other food-related activities — looking at things like mayonnaise under microscopes. We omitted these this year for lack of time, but perhaps we’ll revive them again. Or who knows, maybe we can make an entire food-related camp. The possibilities are endless — just today I learned about blowing bubbles in bread dough to reveal its physical properties (from Karen Guillemin’s farmer’s market blog).
While Eric made ice cream with half the kids, my lab and I took the rest and explored fluids of a different sort, doing activities with soap films and surface tension and then moving to my lab, where we looked at lipid membranes and also manipulated microparticles using laser traps. (The traps were certainly a hit. It is rather magical to move objects by shining light on them, and everyone got a turn!)
The “dead people” refers to a trip to the Human Physiology department’s anatomy lab, in which there are cadavers to examine. (I didn’t go this year, but I’ve gone in the past.) This is an intense activity — we prepare the kids beforehand and discuss aspects of the hour, but it is nonetheless sobering in its impact to see and feel bodies that were living people not long ago. It’s immensely educational, both from a humanistic and a scientific perspective — for the latter, one gets a great appreciation for the biomaterial feats a self-assembled collection of cells can accomplish.
This SAIL camp has always gone well, but the past two years have been especially enjoyable. I’m not sure why, but I think two things that have helped have been (1) a persistent focus on hands-on activities (as opposed to lectures or talks), and (2) leaving things a bit more unstructured than I naturally tend to. This year, for example, I decided to follow up an excellent show of physics demonstrations from Stan Micklavzina with a relatively free period in which, with just a few introductory words and some question-and-answer in the middle, students played with magnets, wires, speakers, and other things illustrating electromagnetic induction. This was hugely successful — the kids could have stayed with this for twice the allotted time. Connecting a battery to a dissected speaker coil and watching it jump, one of the girls exclaimed, ‘This is awesome!’ — a sentiment that seemed to be shared by many others. It’s easy to forget that most students have never had a chance to play with “toys” like these, and that doing so is fun and rewarding.
Ending also with the theme of fascinating outcomes from loosely structured processes: the picture at the top is a painting we made with the “pollockizer,” a device from Richard Taylor’s group (video here) that mimics the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock. I have a brief introduction to fractals, and Richard’s work exploring fractals and Pollock, and then Richard’s graduate students graciously set up the paint-and-pendulum system for us to explore.
I’ll end by noting that a lot of faculty and students in both the Physics and Human Physiology departments volunteered to do activities for the camp, in this and previous years, and it’s this generosity that has made the camp successful. If any of you who helped are reading this: Thanks!