Parachuting Physics Into Homes

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SPS Chapters on Outreach

Parachuting Physics Into Homes


Emily Matthews, A. Louise Ferris, Alyssa Gadsby, and Willem Trainor, SPS Chapter Board Members, Duquesne University

As the great author Thomas Fuller once wrote, “Charity begins at home, but it should not end there.” After students were sent off campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Duquesne SPS chapter struggled with how to continue outreach and charity efforts from a distance. Like Fuller, we knew we needed to start at home, both metaphorically and physically, but we quickly realized that our ideas could and should be taken much further. This led to our effort to create a kit containing a series of short, at-home physics experiments for elementary and middle school students.

We were fortunate to be able to continue our classes during the spring of 2020, but we knew other students had more limited access to educational resources. The idea for the kit emerged as we brainstormed ways that we might help. As finals were approaching and many of our SPS members were still adjusting to life during a pandemic, the four of us—our chapter’s board members—decided to do a test run and establish whether it was feasible to create something so unique.

The cover of the experiment booklets created by the Duquesne SPS chapter. After making a preliminary plan for our project, we got in touch with a professor from our department, Dr. Patrick Cooper, who founded a nonprofit called Pittsburgh Learning Commons (PLC) to help local communities in need. Dr. Cooper connected us to PLC’s executive director, Jacqueline Cameron, and our partnership began.

The kit we ultimately sent out centered on a booklet containing an introduction, engaging questions, and thoughtful conclusions for ten experiments. Each section was accompanied by a fun story aimed at motivating and invigorating students. Since we wanted to appeal to participants of varying ages and abilities, we included experiments with a range of difficulty levels. For the more challenging projects, we recommended that a parent or guardian help younger students as needed.

Along with the booklets, the kits included supplies for each activity. In one example, students were asked to construct a classic parachute. The instructions: Acquire different items from around the house (coffee filters, grocery bags, pieces of paper), then make a parachute using the provided yarn and cup. Students could then put different weights into the cup to see which product supported the weight best. In the process, students were introduced to some common physics vocabulary terms (such as gravity and air resistance) and answered questions about their experiments. We hoped that they would continue with more trials until they could see the physics at work. Eventually, they might begin to recognize terms, and they would also have something fun to share with friends.

Materials were ordered, packaged, and paid for by PLC, which then delivered the kits to a local school to be picked up by students and their families at no cost. We had a wonderful time partnering with PLC and hope that the bonds we created will last for many years to come.

After a lot of hard work, it was gratifying to hear that the distribution of materials went well and that students and their families enjoyed the experiments. In light of its success, this outreach activity will now be open to our entire chapter. This will enable us to create a greater number of experiments and make them diverse enough to intrigue students with different interests. We plan to partner with PLC again and, now that we’re back on campus, hopefully meet some of the participating students. Even if the students aren’t planning to pursue STEM, our goal is to build a strong connection with them and to inspire them to chase their dreams.

We would like to thank everyone who supported us along the way, including PLC and Jacqueline Cameron, Dr. Patrick Cooper, and our chapter advisor and department chair, Dr. Simonetta Frittelli.

Duquesne SPS board members hold a virtual meeting. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, full meetings were postponed to allow chapter members to move home and tackle finals without having extra commitments. Images courtesy of the Duquesne SPS chapter.

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