Hot Wheels, Cloud Chambers, and 3D Printing: A Hands-On Approach to Chapter Meetings

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SPS Chapters on Hands-on Projects

Hot Wheels, Cloud Chambers, and 3D Printing: A Hands-On Approach to Chapter Meetings


Abbigail Fahrenkamp and Owen Johnson, SPS Members, and Dr. Erin Flater, SPS Advisor, Luther College

SPS chapter leaders (L–R) Dalton Ludington, Owen Johnson, and Abbigail Fahrenkamp build contraptions for an egg-drop contest. Photo by Erin Flater.We waited with bated breath, the work of the past 50 minutes laid out in front of us. Individual sections of the Rube Goldberg machine had been independently tested by their builders, but now was the moment of truth. Would the parts work together to form one glorious chain reaction?

A domino was felled, putting things in motion. The first section went off without a hitch and flawlessly triggered the second section, sending a Hot Wheels car racing down its track through the loop-de-loop before . . . totally missing the trigger for the third section, grinding the Rube Goldberg machine to a halt!

No one said a word as we looked at the setup with dismay. A moment later someone reached over and triggered the third stage, a precariously balanced PVC pipe and tripwire, starting the machine up again. Eventually, after two or three more snags, the final domino fell and we all let out a collective cheer. The Rube Goldberg machine wasn’t perfect, but man was it fun.

While the Hot Wheels cars, meticulously stacked dominos, and unpredictable ping-pong ball trajectories didn’t live up to our vision of a flawless Rube Goldberg machine, everyone agreed that the SPS meeting was a nice way to connect with other physics-enthusiast students while pretending we didn’t have homework for an hour.

Our goals for SPS meetings here at Luther College are pretty simple. We strive to provide students with the opportunity to engage in fun, interactive activities and challenges and to create an environment for personal, social, and academic growth. We design our activities so that they’re accessible to everyone—first-year physics students, experienced physics majors, and physics enthusiasts pursuing other fields. We’ve learned that a good “hook” is crucial to increasing attendance, in addition to snack-related bribery, of course. Ultimately, we hope to represent Luther College’s core value of community within the physics department.

Past meeting activities have included an egg-drop competition on the roof of Valders Hall of Science, construction of an almost-functioning cloud chamber, and building and racing balloon-propelled cars. We can’t meet in person this year due to COVID-19, but that hasn’t stopped us from hosting fun challenges during hands-on Zoom meetings, including a butane Coke rocket launch and a spaghetti bridge-building competition. We just distribute the supplies to everyone prior to the meeting.
In addition to new activities, we have a few popular meeting themes that we revisit every year. For example, when delving into the world of 3D printing at the Luther College Makerspace, we learn from its student workers and staff about designing and printing small objects such as miniature bridges, boats, and gliders. Then we compete with each other to test how much weight each bridge can hold, how many pennies will sink a boat, or how far the gliders will fly (not very far, as it turns out). Regardless of the outcome, our students leave these meetings more connected to their classmates and to Luther College physics.

Inspiration for our meetings comes from a variety of places, including a running list of ideas shared among all of the past and current Luther College SPS presidents and vice presidents, which serves to inspire future leadership teams. We also get great ideas for meeting themes from popular science videos, intriguing events on campus, and conversations with our members about their interests.

We’ve found that the process of planning meetings of this sort can be quite complicated, especially while juggling busy college workloads. Due to the pandemic the fall 2020 meetings required additional flexibility and preplanning, so the current leadership team of Owen Johnson and Dalton Ludington started planning in early summer. However, we in the Luther College SPS chapter would have it no other way. Our best advice for an SPS chapter looking to follow our hands-on approach is to welcome all students, explore your campus and the awesome people that learn there, and remember to double-check your Hot Wheels car trajectories before the final run of your Rube Goldberg machine.

 SPS students (L-R) Owen Johnson, Bryan Crow, and Kale Altman admire their work before setting off the Rube Goldberg machine. Photo by Abbigail Fahrenkamp.

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