Dear Pen Pal

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Interactions - SPS Chapters in Action

Dear Pen Pal

Connecting Middle Schoolers to Science


Nico Wagner, Graduate Student

Harvard University

SPSer KAT, "the coolest pen pal," received this letter from her middle school correspondent. Photo courtesy of Nico Wagner.

The day had finally come! After weeks of hype, 97 sixth graders from Cesar Chavez Academy Middle School (CCAMS) in Detroit made their way to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Waiting for each student was his or her pen pal, a member of our SPS chapter who had been writing notes back and forth to the students since September as part of our Future Faces of Physics project.

I was a senior at the University of Michigan at the time and had not met my two pen pals before that day. Ivan turned out to be a quiet teenager who wanted to be a doctor. Diana, on the other hand, was lively. She had looked up several physics topics to ask me about.

We had a full agenda planned for the students, who were primarily Hispanic, a population often underrepresented in the sciences. They split into groups that rotated through several different stations: a planetarium show, a physics lab tour, a hands-on biology lab experience, and a tour of campus. When the groups reconvened for lunch, they eagerly swapped stories about their adventures. One side of the room chattered about finding stars in the night sky, while the other side buzzed about watching fruit flies under a microscope.

Once everyone settled down, we treated our guests to an all-out demo show. We didn’t pick just any demos. For this unique show, we deployed the best of the best: the biggest explosions, the largest sparks, and the loudest demos available to us.

Pop cans exploded and balls flew through the lecture hall. A Tesla coil injected tens of thousands of volts into my body; the students screamed and cheered! Then we kicked things up another gear and fired a jet pulse, which is basically a miniature jet engine, right in front of them.

To finish off the show, we told the audience that we would be setting someone’s hand on fire. Little did they know that the “someone” would be their teacher. Accompanied by the loudest cheer imaginable, Brian Wagner made his way to the front and courageously allowed us to light his hand on fire with the help of propane bubbles. Needless to say, that is an image the kids will not soon forget.

When I visited CCAMS in May for Career Day, the kids were still talking about their trip to U of M. Although we had met only the sixth graders on campus, news of the visit had spread to the seventh and eighth graders as well. Everyone was excited for what I, the new “science man,” had in store for them. We had truly left a lasting impression. // 

In this demo, the hydrolysis of water produces oxygen and hydrogen. The two gases are then mixed and, helped by a spark, transform back into water with a nice little bang. Photo courtesy of Nico Wagner.

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