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
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
"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,
use toxic chemicals
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
Drilly, an electricity
which a cranking
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
of science experiment,"
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
and the specifics
of the material.
"Too often," says
jump right in to
The Little Shop approach,
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
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,"
"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
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."
Sara Bernard is a former staff writer and multimedia producer for Edutopia.