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The U invites “a group of Bill Nyes” to share engaging science demonstrations at a physics teachers conference.

By Lisa Potter, science writer, University Marketing and Communications

The basement of the James Fletcher building has no windows, but the view is anything but boring. Dozens of rows of exhibit cases burst with wires, gadgets and myriad materials fit for a mad scientist’s workshop. The scientist himself stands out from the chaos in a technicolor shirt and a tie-dye lab coat. Adam Beehler, the lecture demonstration specialist for the Department of Physics & Astronomy, is the U’s own Bill Nye; he uses the facility to develop and build demonstrations to help instructors teach complex physical concepts with engaging activities.

PHOTO CREDIT: Jeff E. Jensen

Adam Beehler breathes fire with a little help from cornstarch during a demonstration show.

On April 14-15, Beehler will present some of his demonstrations at the Idaho-Utah section’s American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) spring meeting, hosted at the U. Educators from universities, colleges, and high schools from the two states will share research and strategies aimed at improving their teaching. It also reinvigorates the passionate scientists, like Beehler, who dedicate their lives to making physics accessible for people who think they could never understand it.

“A lot of people are intimidated by physics. There’s a stigma attached to it, that the math is really hard and only smart people can do it. But it can be understood,” says Beehler, sitting at a desk inside the facility. “I like broadening people’s horizons to recognize that physics is everywhere around us. It’s why you don’t fall down when you sit on your chair, why you feel warm or cold. It’s why you can see me, why you can hear me. We deal with it every day, but people don’t realize it.”

The Spring Meeting

The AAPT is a national organization aimed at “enhancing the understanding and appreciation of physics through teaching.” Lecture demonstrations have been an effective and entertaining tool for teaching science concepts for hundreds of years; the Idaho-Utah AAPT annual gathering allows regional educators to show off their new demos, and to support one another. The overarching goal is to get inspired with new ideas and motivation to go at it for another year, says Beehler, who serves as vice president of the regional chapter.

The spring meeting kicks off Friday, April 14 with a “share-a-thon,” where physics educators present demonstrations that they use in their classrooms to bring abstract physical concepts to life. People of all ages and science backgrounds are welcome to attend the free public demos in the James Fletcher Building, room 103 from 7:30-9:30 p.m.

“It’s a group of Bill Nyes getting together. It’s great,” says Kathrine Skollingsberg, public relations specialist for the Department of Physics & Astronomy and co-organizer of the conference.

Anyone can register for the meeting; the fee includes the Friday banquet and Saturday’s activities with a catered breakfast and lunch. Kevin “The Dark Ranger” Poe of Bryce Canyon National Park will deliver the keynote address about diversity in physics, and the solar eclipse happening in August. Students are invited to present their research or outreach efforts at the poster competition for cash prizes, and all will hear talks from fellow educators. The weekend wraps up with a tour of the Utah Nano-Fabrication Laboratory, and a raffle.

The raffle is more than a gift giveaway — it’s an opportunity for high school teachers to access resources to create engaging physics lessons. Sponsors donate typical raffle swag, such as books, science toys and gift cards. In addition, many of the meeting’s attendees donate some of their own equipment and teaching materials to the raffle to help out those without the means to obtain these supplies on their own. If high school teachers need things that are unavailable, they write them down for the AAPT organizers. The AAPT members spread the word to colleagues to find the items, says Skollingsberg.

“It’s really hard to teach kids physics in high school and maintain that interest into higher education,” she continues. “Resources can be difficult to come by. So, the college-level AAPT members do everything they can to make sure everybody has what they need.”

The U’s Own Bill Nye

PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Adam Beehler

Adam Beehler develops engaging demonstrations to help students visualize complex physics concepts, like electricity.

The Friday night public demo show offers a glimpse into Beehler’s role as a lecture demonstration specialist; he designs, develops and refines presentations that illustrate physical concepts and engage the students to make predictions and say, “How did that happen?”

“The instructors don’t always know how to fit demonstrations into the curriculum. That’s where I can come in and help,” says Beehler. “A lot of people ask me, ‘What’s your research?’ To teach better, specifically with demonstrations. I develop, evaluate and fix demos. Demos can be effective, because they teach the physics well, but they might still be boring. They can be cool, but not effective. Or they can be effective and zesty.”

When physics students learn about electrical circuits, Beehler rolls out a zesty demo that deals with voltage, electrical currents and resistors. He hooks up a skinny, short circuit to a power source. He ramps up the voltage to send a power electrical current into the wimpy wire circuit. The current meets a lot of resistance, and physically heats up the wire until it starts glowing red. It gets so hot it will break.

“So, I’m burning something in class. It lights up, throws off some sparks, then breaks in half,” says Beehler. “That’s zesty, right? And it teaches about fuses!” Beehler asks.

Community Engagement

Beehler shares the engaging presentations outside of the halls of physics and astronomy. He has developed demos that illustrate concepts in math, engineering, meteorology and computer science. Institutions across the United States have adopted his demonstrations because of how effectively they increase student learning. Beehler also goes into elementary and middle school classrooms around Salt Lake City.  His dedication to science education was recognized earlier this year when he was awarded the Governor’s Medal for Science and Technology in Higher Education.

PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Adam Beehler

Elementary school students enjoy a demonstration about vortices. Beehler hopes the positive experience with physics will make the science less intimidating.

“Some higher up administrators gave me the medal because they recognized that community engagement has its place, and is useful, and can affect the economic welfare of the state. I’ve always felt that way —that’s why I do it,” Beehler says. “I’ve gone into classrooms, and the students have been intimidated or scared. They say, ‘I don’t like physics.’ But after a demonstration show they’ll say, ‘I like it now. I hope you’re still teaching when I get to the U.’ They want to go to college, and won’t rule physics out when they get there.”

Beehler has reached over 65,000 students and members of the general public through various community engagement activities. Together with the rest of the Department of Physics & Astronomy’s robust outreach efforts, the reach is much greater. Yet the groups lack sufficient financial support to do more effective community engagement. Many passionate scientists like Beehler end up using their own resources.

“For everybody, it’s a labor of love,” says Skollingsberg. “There are other places where they have amazing resources, and we’ve seen what’s possible.”

The College of Science and the Department of Physics & Astronomy are quite supportive — both co-sponsored the Idaho-Utah AAPT spring meeting, which kept registration costs down, and have offered academic credit for attendees. Beehler hopes administrators will see the Governor’s Medal as evidence of the value of community outreach, and allocate more tangible support for the day-to-day efforts to increase the public’s appreciation of physics.

“A lot of people will criticize community outreach or demos. They say, ‘Oh, it’s just fun. They’re not learning anything.’ Maybe. But are they less scared about physics now?” asks Beehler. “Now they have a good taste in their mouth, and some point later, they may take a physics class, as opposed to blowing it off and saying, ‘No. That stunk. I’m never going to go there ever again.”

Check out some of Beehler’s physics demonstrations on Facebook Live