Fighting Misconceptions with Water Balloons

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SPS Chapters on Building Community

Fighting Misconceptions with Water Balloons


Kalista Wayt, SPS Chapter Vice President, Kenyon College


Kenyon College SPS members show off their newly painted T-shirts. Photo courtesy of the chapter.

Students who are drawn to physics are often curious, determined, bright, and resolute. And yet there are many misconceptions about physicists as people, such as that we're boring and inaccessible. These misconceptions reverberate throughout society and can deter undergraduates from approaching or remaining in the field. Therefore our SPS chapter works to break down false impressions by demonstrating that physics is fun and accessible. Working toward this goal, we’ve funded educational field trips and hosted panels on imposter syndrome. But sometimes it takes two gallons of lemonade, six quarts of ice cream, 10 bottles of paint, 30 plain T-shirts, and 1,500 water balloons to get the job done.

It started with a simple question: What is an easy activity to host on a hot spring day? The brainstorming began with suggestions of cold lemonade and ice cream. Then someone asked, “What about a water balloon fight?” Suddenly the zeal to relive our childhoods took over. Of course, before we could start planning, we had to consider how we could make it relevant to breaking down barriers. Luckily, time was on our side—National Physics Day was right around the corner.


Soggy participants enjoy ice cream after the water balloon fight. Photo courtesy of the chapter.

By framing the water balloon fight as a physics celebration, we planned to show people that physicists are not just boring people in lab coats. Just like any other group, we like to have fun. And to increase the fun, we decided to fill these water balloons not just with water, but with paint too. That way we could chuck paint-filled balloons at each other while turning our plain T-shirts into memorabilia. And we would have lemonade and ice cream, because at a party you can have your cake and eat it too.

There was just one last obstacle to the event―the fact that gravity is such a downer. Literally. When you throw water balloons, the plastic breaks apart and ends up on the ground. This thought led to a frantic online search for “biodegradable water balloons.” The good news is that they exist—but there was a catch: The smallest pack came with 1,500 water balloons. Good old-fashioned hose-spigot, tie-them-yourself water balloons. We had a humongous task in front of us.

After securing budgets and permissions as fast as possible, we bought T-shirts, water balloons, paint, cups, utensils, and bowls. A week before the event we started advertising. Posters went up, and Discords and emails were sent. One email included a video of our vice president accidentally getting hit with a water balloon in the back of the head. Schedules were cleared, and former presidents, secretaries, treasurers, and vice presidents were recruited. We had one task left: Fill 1,500 water balloons in only five hours.


April 24 is National Physics Day in the US. What better way to celebrate?  Photo courtesy of the chapter.

Sequestered away in a windowless basement, we began our work. Squirt to fill the balloon with paint, turn and fill to the max with water, twist and seal, then a thud as the messy weapon was added to our growing pile. We repeated this hour after hour, balloon after balloon. We emptied trash cans, carts, and bags to hold the ammunition, and the pile still kept growing. It grew and grew. And somehow, we managed to fill only
500 water balloons!

But the number didn’t matter. It was time. Several of us, including many first-year students, moved into position. Then the fight began. Balloons were flying, water was splashing from all directions, and torsos were being covered in paint. First-years and seniors alike squealed as they chased each other with mischievous intent. The best part was the pure, unburdened laughter echoing outside our building. In that chaos, the first-years could see that we weren’t super special, academically gifted upperclassman, destined from birth to become untouchable physicists. We were just people. People who they could reach out to for advice, people who they fit in with, and, most importantly in that moment, people who squealed when hit by an incoming balloon. 

After the last balloon had burst and the final scoops of ice cream had been consumed, we took a moment to bask in the contentment. We had successfully brought our community together and showed first-year students that physicists like to have fun too. It turns out that you don’t need 1,500 water balloons to break down the physics barrier. Five hundred is enough.


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