Impacted by Outreach

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Special Feature

Impacted by Outreach


Kendra Redmond, Editor


Visitors play with the spandex model of the universe at an SPS station during the eclipse celebration at Echo. All photos courtesy of Patrick Charron.

Visitors aren’t the only ones who benefited from an SPS chapter’s eclipse demos.

For many years the SPS chapter at the University of Vermont (UVM) has cohosted an annual Physics Phun Day with ECHO, its local science and nature center. The chapter brings demos to the center, sets up tables in a special event room, and shares its enthusiasm for physics and astronomy with visitors. Last October, Vermont was in the path of a partial solar eclipse, prompting a new collaborative event between ECHO, the SPS chapter, and the Vermont Astronomical Society that left a lasting impression on the chapter.

About a week before the event, SPS copresident Anders Holm-Brown, outreach coordinator Jeremy Elliott, and a couple of UVM physics faculty members met with ECHO staff to make plans. It was time well spent. The SPS leaders arrived with ideas for demos that might pair well with the eclipse, and ECHO staff helped refine the list based on their expertise. The ECHO staff “had a much better understanding of what was going to resonate with kids. That was really helpful for putting together a good event,” says Holm-Brown.


The University of Vermont cadre poses with a cloudy sky—thankfully the clouds broke for a nice view of the eclipse.

Elliott, who plans to pursue an education-related career, concurs. "It’s very beneficial to actually meet with people who do this professionally,” he says. “We get to learn a lot about how to educate.”

Resonating with kids doesn’t mean avoiding complex topics, though. SPS copresident Sarah Phillips helped attendees explore the composition of stars using diffraction gratings and tubes of noble gases. Although it can be challenging to explain such concepts at a basic level, she found it gratifying to see the looks on the faces of kids—and adults—as they held up a diffraction grating and had a lightbulb moment.

“My mom always told me that she didn't have to take physics in high school, and so she didn't—because she thought she could never do it,” says Phillips. She found sharing physics with the adults in attendance, some of whom may have believed they weren’t smart enough to study physics, to be especially rewarding. “Being able to give them a little snippet of something that they can actually feel like they understand was really meaningful to me,” she says.


Attendees, such as this young visitor, could safely view the partial solar eclipse through a variety of instruments.

For younger attendees, one of the main attractions was a spandex model of the universe on which attendees rolled marbles to simulate the sun and planets. Some kids came in with such high energy that Holm-Brown, who was running the station, worried the demo might not survive. But when one young child asked him an “incredibly insightful” question about the beginning of the universe, Holm-Brown realized the kind of impact he could have. He engaged her curiosity, telling her what scientists think but explaining that they aren’t sure yet and that maybe someday she will figure it out for us. “That was the single interaction that I remember the most,” he says. “Not necessarily what was said, but just how it made me feel.”

Along with exploring the center and the SPS demos, attendees were treated to a (fortunately) clear view of the partial eclipse. They gathered in a big outdoor area in the back of the center to look through eclipse glasses and view images produced by solar telescopes—from a cardboard solar scope to a high-tech setup brought by the Vermont Astronomical Society.

The SPS leaders say the event was a great way to build community in their chapter, get members out into the community, and learn more about education. It’s also good preparation for the eclipse on April 8, 2024, for which UVM will be in the path of totality. The university expects a large influx of people for related events, and many SPS members will be busy helping things run smoothly.

Although an eclipse is an excellent excuse for science outreach, there’s never a wrong time to share science. The UVM SPS chapter also participates in local science fairs, and other chapters take on classroom visits, after-school events, and community festivals. To fellow SPS chapters, Elliott says, “If you have the time and the resources, go do something for your community.” Phillips agrees. “It’s just such a valuable experience. I would say that anyone who has an opportunity to do community outreach should absolutely give it a shot.” 

Share Your Eclipse Experience

Did you experience the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024? Host a viewing party? Get outraged at cloud cover? Submit your photos, stories, poems, and other reactions to SPS at sps [at] Submissions may be included in the fall issue of the SPS Observer!


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