Last week we had another successful run of our Physics & Human Physiology “SAIL” outreach day camp for high school students. I just realized that this is the 10th year I’ve co-run a SAIL camp, which means I should probably offer some grand assessment of it. Instead, I’ll just jot a few notes, post a few pictures, and comment a bit on reasons I think our camp works so well.
The whole SAIL program especially targets lower income middle and high school students, and aims to convey a sense of what college is like and how it’s accessible, in addition to having students learn a bit about some subject. Students can, ideally, do one one-week SAIL camp per year for four years. The idea is that the combination of repeated exposure to the campus as well as faculty and students, information about higher education, learning about interesting topics, and mentoring during the academic year will have an impact on these students’ success later on — a hope that seems borne out by data on student outcomes. (See here for more information on SAIL.) Ours is one of a dozen or so SAIL camps — when I started, we were the third!
As in every year except 2008, our camp was a combination of Physics and Human Physiology. We spent a week with about 20 students who had just completed 10th grade. For the past several years I’ve co-run the camp with Andy Karduna (Human Phys.), but this year, as he was out of the country, his shoes were very capably filled by Hans Dreyer. The schedule is here, and consists of 1-2 hour activities run by faculty and graduate students in the different departments. (The “content” ran from 10am-3pm each day, with an hour for lunch; the students had activities with SAIL staff before and after 10 and 3.) I wrote a post on some of the activities a few years ago, and I’ll comment on some others below.
The students who take part in it seem very fond of SAIL in general, but it does seem like they really like our camp. This is reassuring, because a lot of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates across both departments put a lot of work into it. Why does it work well?
Our camp has zero lectures. It’s completely based on activities. Lectures can be fine, and some people can make them rivetting, but in general given just a week (or an hour) with students who aren’t necessarily interested in Physics or Physiology, having them actually do something seems better for engaging them. Of course, we’re lucky in that our subjects are amenable to activities.
An example non-lecture:
Shown is Physics Professor Graham Kribs, who ran a phenomenal activity on the physics of climbing, at the UO Rec Center. Parts of it involved force measurements; parts of it involved demonstrations of the design principles of climbing and biking helmets, with watermelons as surrogate heads. It was brilliant. Following this was a very neat demonstration of EKG equipment from graduate students in Andy Karduna’s lab. After that, the kids got to climb for an hour with help from the Rec Center staff and several physics graduate students.
This is a tougher one, and one we don’t always succeed at. One of the most difficult things to realize as a faculty member is that most people don’t care about things you find interesting. I think watching a bacterium swim, or an electron microscope zoom into a material, is intrinsically fascinating. Most people, however, aren’t like me. Making connections between science activities and everyday topics like health or art helps a lot. For the human physiology part of the camp, this is easy! It can be done in other areas also.
This photo is from our activity on surface tension, run by graduate student Brandon Schlomann (arm pictured) and me. It’s based on similar things in a class I teach, and I start it off with a photo of the gravestone of John F. Kennedy’s last child, who was born prematurely and died within 2 days. I pose the intentionally odd question of what premature infant mortality has to do with soap films, which becomes clear over the course of 20 minutes, and which gets people much more fascinated with soap films than they might otherwise be. I’m still stunned at how well this goes.
I’ve filled some small and awkward blocks of time with things like showing the SAIL students a large lecture hall (Columbia 150, terrifying) or some of the neat small exhibits that dot the campus, like the periodic table pictured. Since this is getting long, I won’t write more, but these are fun & simple to do.
Another low-key activity that goes well is diving the students into groups of 3 or 4 and having them talk to a Physics graduate student for half an hour, seeing their lab and also learning something interesting about that person’s life and path into science. The students then report back to the rest of the group about this. Each year, it’s been easy to get several graduate student volunteers, some more talkative than others.
A lot of people!
Many faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates volunteer to run activities during the week, which is wonderful. They seem to enjoy it, too! I think the direct involvement of faculty from both departments conveys, especially to graduate students, that outreach activies are both important and non-trivial to implement.
SAIL also benefits from phenomenal staff, especially its director, Lara Fernandez. All the logistics of student recruitment, transit from activity to activity, food, etc., are all taken care of, and there are impressively capable undergraduate helpers attached to each SAIL camp. This didn’t exist at the beginning, years ago, and dealing with things like this was (for someone like me) very difficult.
For next year…
What doesn’t work? Some activities go better than others, and we try to get feedback on flops as well as successes. Conveying this isn’t easy.
SAIL isn’t very time-consuming. For most people running activities, it’s an hour or two, plus the time needed to design and practice beforehand. Even for me, co-organizing, there are some days I have to do a lot, and some with nothing I’m responsible for. I generally don’t stick around for activities I’m not involved with, though I made an exception at the rock wall this year because it was so fascinating. I’m very happy to be co-organizing the camp with Human Physiology, not only because of the nice mix of topics, but because it cuts the work in half — I wouldn’t be capable of organizing a whole week myself.
Even though SAIL didn’t occupy most of my time last week, it takes some work to juggle its schedule with the usual demands of paper writing, grant budgets, discussing data w/ students in the lab, etc., and I didn’t do a great job last week compared to previous years. Plus, I always find it very draining to talk to people and appear energetic, and this was especially the case last week. Some of my wounds were self-inflicted: I learned the hard way that suddenly deciding to donate blood at the end of a very packed day, after running into a man in a blobby red costume, is a really bad idea. I very nearly passed out, and was a feverish mess for the small fraction of the evening I managed to keep awake. In general, I wondered whether my strange muscle and head aches during the week were the sort of “brain fever” that one finds in 19th century novels, or a reaction to stress. But, time and acetaminophen help, and I’m fine now! I’ll try to remember this next year…
A carabiner, mindlessly traced from a photo, mainly to practice shading metal — something that came up in a more interesting drawing that will probably appear in my next post.