Little Shop of Physics: A Mobile Hands-On Science Program Captivates
An arcane science turns into a traveling circus thatâ€™s fizzy, frantic, and fun.
Illustration: David Julian; Photography: Stephen Collector
The whirring and clicking of homemade machines fills this middle school classroom turned science museum, stacked high with magnet sculptures, spinning plates, and funhouse mirrors. A shop vacuum balances a beach ball on its upward air current; a humidifier, hooked up to an aquarium tank, gurgles out thick, white vapor that students can touch and pour into cups. Two-liter soda bottles, plastic funnels, cast-iron pans, and discarded television sets demonstrate everything from momentum to magnetism in a way that clearly captivates a preteen audience: above the din rises an incessant chorus of "Ooh!"s and "Ahh!"s and the occasional delighted shriek.
It may seem chaotic, but it is purely scientific. Most of all, it is experiential learning -- the Little Shop of Physics way.
Little Shop, as it's affectionately known to locals of Fort Collins, Colorado, is a traveling hands-on physics program based at Colorado State University since 1991. Run by CSU physics instructor Brian Jones, teacher-in-residence Sheila Ferguson, a teacher-in-training, and a crew of undergraduate interns, the Little Shop of Physics visits K-12 classrooms as close to home as Rocky Mountain High School -- and as far afield as Azerbaijan.
AUDIO SLIDE SHOW: Little Shop of Physics
Produced by Sara Bernard; photography by Stephen Collector and Sara Bernard
"We don't do presentations; we don't show students science," the troupe's Web site proclaims. "We help them do science." And with forty school visits, ten workshops for K-12 teachers, two week-long field trips, an annual open house event at CSU, and even a television show on a station operated by the city's Poudre School District, Jones and the Little Shop of Physics bring hands-on science to more than 15,000 students per year.
"Kids do an awful lot of sitting in chairs and listening to people tell them things," says Jones, whose idea for the outreach program came from a rather fruitless day as a visiting lecturer in an eighth-grade classroom. "I don't think it's natural." After boring his charges that morning with a formal presentation -- even though it fizzed and popped -- he gave them a chance to try some of the experiments themselves, and they went from blasé to beguiled in an instant, he recalls. Jones's educational mission became clear: "We make an environment where students have freedom to interact with the world in a way that's more reasonable for them."
Physics, says Jones and the Little Shop entourage, need not be reserved for budding Einsteins; science -- real, cutting-edge science -- should not be confined to textbooks, lectures, or, as Jones puts it, "a fancy-pants piece of science equipment." It can be revealed in kitchens, on baseball fields, and in the curious eyes and hands of every child.
"Kids are scientists from the very beginning," says Cara Cummings, the 2006-07 academic year's Little Shop teacher-in-training. Hence the group's ultimate goal: to deliver learning in a way that fits a child's self-directed sensibilities. (The approach, it turns out, works pretty well with adults, too).
Brian Jones (left) and students explore the force that air exerts both beneath and around the sides of a beach ball.
Credit: Stephen Collector
"It's not natural for kids to sit still," says Nisse Deen, a CSU senior and a Little Shop staff member for the majority of her undergraduate career. "If they sit still, they're going to find something else to do other than pay attention." But when kids are set loose in this particular playground, she adds, they'll find that not only is physics tremendously exciting, it's also "something that anybody and everybody can experience."
Each week, the devoted members of Team LSOP rise at dawn, don their signature tie-dye T-shirts, and pile a rotating repertoire of roughly 80 handcrafted physics demonstrations (out of more than 200 stocked in the lab) into their van, decked out with curtains that match their attire. When they arrive at a school, the joy they bring to the classroom is more than palpable.
Little Shop is a boon for all who take part: Students learn about the principles of physics, meet a welcoming group of college-age role models, and have a blast (if the constant giggling and "Whoa, cool!" are any indication). The undergraduates beef up their physics skills and knowledge base by designing and building the experiments and teaching the concepts to others, as well as cultivating the patience and genuine goodwill required to hack it as a Little Shopper. Teachers welcome the respite, the chance to observe what the excitement of tactile physics can do for their students, and the opportunity to use some of those materials and ideas themselves.
"As a teacher, it gets really tiring after a day of seeing hundreds of kids, but you can't let that show," says Nicole Bishop, a seventh-grade science teacher at Fort Collins's Eaton Middle School and a Little Shop of Physics internship alumna. (Her internship was supported by a grant from the Eastman Kodak Company that explicitly required applicants to become science teachers.) "Little Shop stays peppy the whole time, and positive!" Plus, she adds, "it's great when you can bring guests into the classroom. No matter who it is, the students will pay attention more."
Nisse Deen (left) demonstrates a magnet's pull on iron filings.
Credit: Stephen Collector
For undergraduates, the Little Shop of Physics is akin to a job in a research lab, except that the materials include salad spinners and ketchup packets rather than oscilloscopes or pipettes. Little Shoppers could look up recipes for experiments that demonstrate various principles of physics if they wanted to, says Brian Jones, but these recipes "won't work for our purposes, because they use toxic chemicals and expensive equipment." The educational bonus for the undergraduates, he notes, is that the ultimate test of any intern-created experiment is its success in the classroom. "If it goes down hard, it's not me saying it sucked; it's the kids saying it sucked," Jones says. "As an educator, I really like that. It's like a class where your only test is, does it work?"
Luckily, when an experiment works, it's obvious. It's hard to tear kids away even for a moment to ask how a Little Shop visit compares to their typical day in science class. Several boys at Fort Collins's Lesher Middle School, their eyes glued to a presentation of Chilly Drilly, an electricity experiment in which a cranking handle generates heat when turned in one direction and produces cold when operated the other way, complain that they have sat and listened far too often. "Oh, I guess sometimes we do a hands-on kind of science experiment," conceded one, "but not really that much."
Jones sees effective teaching occurring in three basic steps: 1) engage, 2) explore, and 3) explain. First, he says, get the students' attention -- and if you need a fog machine or light-sensitive plastic beads that turn rainbow hues to do it, go ahead. Second, set them free: Show them the material and let them play. They will discover just as much or more about the topic that way than if simply told how things work. Finally, Jones says, there should be a "formal piece" to follow the exploration, so that kids can learn the vocabulary and the specifics of the material. "Too often," says Jones, "people jump right in to 'explain.'"
The Little Shop approach, he adds, is exactly what being a scientist is all about. "Students aren't going to start by knowing what the answer to an experiment is; if you're a scientist, you don't know!" Jones says. "You're doing something no one's ever done before. So, if every lab that the kids do has a right and wrong answer, it's really not a good training."
Still, teacher-in-training Cara Cummings admits that at the beginning of her year with Little Shop, she took a critical perspective, asking, "Where's the learning happening? Show me what they're getting out of this." What she has come to understand, Cummings says, is that "before kids can go on in science, they need some prior experience, some context for how things work." Playing with magnets, for instance, can dramatically inform students' experience once they acquire an understanding of magnetism more formally.
Jones calls this approach the development of a kinesthetic vocabulary, one made of textures, smells, and movements, representing a tangible experience in the world, rather than a single-sensory directive to digest information. Even if a kid can't tell you precisely what it is he or she learned from Little Shop that day, says Cummings, "it's stored in there. And it's stored in a kinesthetic way."
Please Try This at Home
A Different Light:
Sheila Ferguson (right) and students study the difference between fluorescent lightbulbs and incandescent ones (which waste energy by emitting large amounts of invisible infrared light).
Credit: Stephen Collector
The Little Shop of Physics has been run for the past sixteen years on a shoestring budget of grants and donations. Supporters include the Colorado Rural Electric Association, CSU's Academic Enhancement Program, and, more recently, the Center for Multi-scale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes (CMMAP), a CSU group funded by the National Science Foundation that is studying cloud formation and how it affects climate. Though Little Shop accepts donations from the schools it visits, Jones is firm in his stance that these remain donations only. "Our core principle is that no one has to pay, ever," he says. "I will shake down PTAs, and I will shake down granting agencies, but never kids."
Interestingly, Jones adds, the use of everyday household materials -- now so integral to the Little Shop aesthetic -- wasn't an original focus. "If I had had more money at the beginning, Little Shop probably would have had a very different look to it," he says. "We didn't have money. So, instead, we just adapted stuff, and it became a theme." That theme, expressed in school visits, teacher workshops, and open houses with parents and families, is that anyone can do this. Little Shop isn't just intellectually accessible; it's also hands-on science at public school prices.
"A big part of the message is empowerment," Jones explains. "You can do this. We've done it; we're sharing this with you. It's just a mile from here where all this stuff was put together, and it's built out of parts you could get."
To that end, Little Shop targets as wide an audience as it can: During the week-long 2007 spring break, Little Shop joined forces with CSU's Native American Student Services to bring a vanload of undergraduates and materials to schools and communities in the Navajo and Southern Ute reservations in Colorado and New Mexico. Students whose elementary school curricula offered very little science, or who had no plans for college, were able to see science in everyday objects -- and scientists as everyday people.
At the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, in Colorado Springs, Little Shop members found deaf students so enamored with Voice-o-Vision -- an adapted black-and-white TV that graphically displays sound waves created by speaking into a microphone -- that they later returned to help those students build Voice-o-Visions of their own. "That was the noisiest classroom I have ever been in!" recalls teacher-in-residence Sheila Ferguson. "They were really letting it all out just to see what it looked like."
Jones says he sees this kind of empowerment -- tied to a personal "A-ha!" moment -- again and again. When Little Shop visited Lesher Middle School in April, Jones says, "Some of the kids asked, 'Who builds all this stuff?' And I said, 'We do! We build it.' It was so amazing to them, because there's this tremendous disconnect. Things are designed and built 'elsewhere.' The idea that the people there were the creative force behind it was really quite something to the kids."
The Little Shop of Physics is a way of life for its members.
Credit: Stephen Collector
It is quite something to teachers, too -- and not only to teachers from the Poudre School District. Workshops have been offered in Azerbaijan, Belize, Canada, Chile, El Salvador, and Ethiopia, and the workshops have drawn teachers to the United States from Chile, Gambia, and Korea. Whether educators are from Ethiopia's Abbiyi Addi College or Azerbaijan's Baku Teacher Training Institute, Jones encourages them to explore in the same way students do.
Jones's class prep includes a visit to the local market in each destination, where he finds inexpensive materials such as bottles, boxes, and tubes; he then integrates the objects into the workshop. Teachers from Korea, for instance, tried their hand at Iron Physics Teacher, an in-class competition that required them to turn five everyday objects into a physics demonstration in a matter of minutes.
Credit: Stephen Collector
From his experience leading a workshop in Chile without a translator, Jones came up with the idea for the Language of Physics. ("Speak in Physicist to me," he'll say to his undergraduate students, "and I'll critique you on your grammar and syntax.") And at St. John's College, in Belize City, Belize, he even helped professors and undergraduates set up their own teaching lab and advised them on how they might start their own Little Shop of Physics.
What did Jones learn in his travels? "Teachers are some of the coolest people in the world."
As Seen on TV
Back at home in Fort Collins, Jones is something of a celebrity, partly because of his TV show. Everyday Science features Jones and several students exploring conceptual physics through hands-on experiments in a studio -- hung, of course, with tie-dyed fabric. Most episodes include footage from such physics-filled venues as an amusement park and from vehicles such as a hot air balloon.
Not Afraid of the Dark:
The Little Shop experience includes both a light room and a darkroom.
Credit: Stephen Collector
"It's our flagship show," says Herb Saperstone, a lead coordinator for the Poudre School District's Channel 10, a TV station staffed largely by high school students who participate in free after-school filming and editing internships. "It's kid oriented, it's colorful, it has a personality. It's become quite a phenomenon for the community."
The shows -- fifteen exist so far -- also air on Denver's PBS affiliate. Clips are available for viewing on the Little Shop of Physics Web site, along with an array of handy try-it-yourself experiments. Spin-offs from the show -- sixty-second physics lessons called Science Minutes, filmed and edited entirely by Channel 10 interns -- appear as interstitial programming between Channel 10's other shows. (Science Minutes are available as free video podcasts, too; search iTunes for "Everyday Science.").
Little Shop resources have become so popular that Jones and Ferguson have begun designing classroom-friendly physics kits for teachers -- including lesson plans, materials, teacher guides, and a DVD titled Everyday Science -- available for purchase through American Educational Products or other vendors.
"There are so many other ways to earn money than doing what I do," says the indefatigable Jones, whose days are crammed to bursting. As a full-time professor and a full-time Little Shopper, even his weekends are regularly swamped with conferences, workshops, Super Science Saturdays, and other events. "But I'm having so much fun!"
Credit: Stephen Collector
So, it seems, are the rest of the Little Shop staff, and not only because it's gratifying to say things like, "Hey, thanks for the liquid nitrogen" and "Have you seen that box of rainbow 3-D glasses?" on a regular basis.
"Everyone on the crew will tell you the
same thing: This is the best job they've
ever had and ever will have," says Nisse
Deen, her face alight. "Because every
single day you go home feeling like you
made a difference to somebody. That is
a very powerful thing."