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Alden Raymond, SPS Chapter Treasurer, Rhodes College

Rhodes Tower, from the roof of which chapter members dropped pumpkins frozen in liquid nitrogen.During our chapter’s 2017 pumpkin drop, I unexpectedly took up the position of emcee, improvising to the best of my ability. I kept a rotating crowd entertained with jokes, random facts, and personality as fellow physics undergraduates dropped pumpkins frozen in liquid nitrogen from the roof of Rhodes Tower, the home of the physics department at Rhodes College. The extreme freezing from liquid nitrogen causes the pumpkins to become highly brittle and shatter spectacularly when they hit the ground. It’s an event that our SPS chapter has done for years. That pumpkin drop was an unexpected hit, even in the face of a severe cold front, with around 300 attendees.

When I organized the 2018 pumpkin drop, I wanted to push the emcee angle again, push the showmanship of the science we were featuring. But I needed help. Thankfully, our chapter president that year, Josh Ortega, was a physics and theater double major. Together, we outlined what we wanted the 2018 pumpkin drop to be: a showcase of demonstrations with a more theatrical presentation. We wanted to entertain people.

To this end, we did a few things differently. First and foremost, we changed how we trained our volunteers. Instead of giving them brief tutorials on the demos, we had in-depth training days in which we taught volunteers how to operate and explain demonstrations while entertaining people walking by.

We also amped up the most visible parts of the night—the jokes, the surprise, and the suspense of actually dropping the pumpkins. I again served as emcee for the evening but this time engaged in some orchestrated conflict with the SPS members dropping pumpkins. I would announce a drop and get the crowd to count down with me, but the droppers would release the pumpkins early. Or late. When I would act frustrated, the droppers would laugh. We would make jokes and argue with each other.

When I promised the audience we would be dropping our biggest pumpkin next, the droppers instead released a pebble. That got a big laugh. The theatrics helped the event become more than just a night where we dropped pumpkins. It became a night where people had fun (and hopefully learned a thing or two in the process).

Mixing science with a high dose of entertainment became our guiding philosophy last year. We pushed ourselves to find more entertaining ways to explain science during our other events. We got audiences more involved, such as through a hovercraft build funded by an SPS Future Faces of Physics Award, in which local students built their own miniature hovercrafts out of bottle caps, balloons, and CDs.

This philosophy also guided our plans for the 2019 drop. We continued the training days and, as this year’s event was scheduled for the weekend after Halloween, we added Halloween-themed décor and “spookified” some of our demos. Attendees saw smoke rings burst into flames and floating pumpkins.

Rhodes SPS chapter advisor Dr. Brent Hoffmeister tries out a prototyped hovercraft demo. It’s four feet wide; he’s just very tall. The biggest thing we learned from all of this is that it’s often not enough to explain what’s going on. If your audience doesn’t care, they won’t listen. But if you get them interested first, by entertaining them, for example, they’ll want to know how the demo works. It’s like a magic trick, except instead of keeping the “how” a secret, we want to show people the mechanisms at work.

2018 Rhodes SPS chapter officers and event organizers (L-R) Rodd Lofton, Josh Ortega, and Alden Raymond. Photos courtesy of Doni Thomas.

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