The force behind physics demonstrations
by Austen Hufford
n a large, empty Dennison lecture
hall Friday afternoon, three
people wheeled in a large copper
_Tesla coil, a device that produces high-
voltage, low-current electricity. After
efficiently setting everything up, the
device was powered on. An off-kilter
electric sound filled the hall and bright
blue sparks emanated from the coil's top
in seemingly random directions. Two
people slowly walked around the coil -
intently checking for misplaced internal
The power was cut. Someone
mentioned the machine sounded off,
and a protective shielding panel on the
device was removed. An internal part
was adjusted - by mere millimeters -
and the machine was powered on again.
This process was repeated over and over:
turn off, small adjustment, turn on, listen,
look, try again until it was just right.
The employees at the University's
Physics Demonstration Lab had to
make sure this demonstration - one of
their more dangerous - was correctly
calibrated because, well, that's just what
they do: Build, correct and perfect.
Buried in the basement of Dennison,
accessible through a second story
UTaircase or going through one of two
lecture halls, a team of three works daily
to imagine, build and perfect in-class
physics demonstrations and experiments.
From simply visualizing an electronic
field to loudly showing the effects of a
Tesla coil, the Physics Demonstration
Lab is used to increase learning and
occasionally awaken napping students in
physics classes everyday.
A demonstration is first thought out
and planned, then gets prototyped
for feasibility. If the project is deemed
successful, a first build is done and
sometimes second and third remakes are
required because of durability, weight
or myriad other concerns. Eventually it
is deemed classroom ready and added
to the catalogue. Even at this stage, the
demonstration can still be changed and
updated as feedback is received.
Laboratory Manager Warren Smith
and Lecture Demonstrators Monika
Wood and Matthew Jackson arrive one
hour before a class starts. They see the
schedule of demonstrations for the day
with many last minute additions from
professors and set up what's needed for
the first block of classes on movable carts.
While classes are in session, the
fhree set up experiments for the next
class, while working to fix and refine
demonstrations. The basementlaboratory
is a curious scientist's paradise. Situated
just yelling distance from the lecture
halls - in case anything goes wrong -
the large space consists of a small office
with computers, a large shelved storage
area and a workroom.
With the feel of the warehouse on
Discovery's "Mythbusters," the lab
has a large assortment of, well, almost
anything. Children's toys, saws, wires,
speakers of every size, all carefully
organized and put away.When a professor
University professors view the
demonstrations as one tool to help make
lessons stick in the minds of easily
distracted students. Students view the
experiments as a welcome reprieve from
PowerPoint presentations and another
way to help grasp a concept.
"Usually when you teach something,
some new idea, new concept, you want
the students to immediately come to grips
with it," Physics Prof. Gregory Tarle said.
"You want them to see that what you're
teachin' them has annlieatinns in real
about explaining the real world and,
especially in introductory classes, many
of the phenomena can be shown to
Keeping it simple
Some demonstrations are essentially
unchanged from the 1900s, only getting
rebuilt when needed. Others are
frequently remade and created.
For Smith, who has been with the lab
for 18 years, an experiment can always be
improved - rebuilt, repainted, rethought.
However, he believes simplicity is key.
It is about properly meeting the needs
of both those who will use and see the
Smith said demonstrations are superior
to videos and simulations.
"There's just no replacement for the
real thing. It has an impact, a visceral
impact, upon all of your senses and your
body," Smith said.
While a demonstration may appear
simple in its final form, there is thought
that goes into every facet of its design:
the size and color of wiring, the speed of
the reaction and even colors that contrast
"We just have a whole list of things
that we look at when we construct an
experiment that unless it meets all that
criteria, it's subject to rebuild at anytime,"
He said the perfect experiment is one
that clearly shows a single concept. Bored
students should be interested in what
happens, and it must be controllable
by professors. A good demonstration is
simple to understand and easy to see -
from both nearby and in the top row.
McKay said the physics faculty
embraces these demonstrations,
particularly in introductory classes.
He said when used properly the
demonstrations can be one of the best
ways to really drive home a point.
"Demonstrators are one of the ways
that we can send our students out
wanting to tell their roommate about
what happened in class today," McKay
said. "When you do that, it's not just a
piece of theater, because that kind of
memorable nature is learning. You stick
something in a person's brain in a way
that stays by giving it that framing."
Want to explore the
Physics Demonstration Lab?
Check out our video on
FROM PAGE 2B
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hwas an idea for a new experiment, Smith
and his coworkers know what needs to be
bought and what is already on hand.
As class time approaches, the lab busies
with activity, and when class is finally
dismissed, there is a NASCAR-esque pit
crew race to move the experiments out
of the classrooms and move new ones in.
Chalkboards wiped down experiments
set up, in under 10 minutes.
All professors need to do is actuallyrun
and explain the demonstrations during
Typically used in large lecture halls -
where introductory science classes are
often held - the demonstrations break
up monotonous classes but also reinforce
learning in their own right.
In-class demonstrations can primarily
benefit learning in two ways, according
to Rachel Niemer, associate director for
the University's Center for Research
on Learning and Teaching. Aside from
providing a break during long lectures,
the demonstrations make students
actively think about the material instead
of passively ingesting it.
life. You want to make that connection by
showing them the demonstration."
Professors are alwayscalling, e-mailing
and visiting the physics lab. Many times,
they are just ordering an experiment
for class from the large catalogue of
experiments that have already been
built and tested by the lab. Frequently,
idea for an experiment, asking to see ifa
concept can be shown in demonstration
form, or even just offering or asking for
improvements for an already created one.
For members of the lab and the
professors and lecturers who use it, this
communication is keyto the lab's success.
Timothy McKay, the Arthur F.
Thurnau professor of physics and
astronomy, said having a dedicated team
encourages professors to come up with
innovative teaching methods for class,
which wouldn't be possible if the support
weren't there. Without the lab, professors
wouldn't even attempt to use some of the
technology they do now.
McKay said using demonstrations in
science classes - specifically in physics
- has a long history, with books on the
subject dating back to the early 20th
century. Physicists say the field is all
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