What’s Happening . . . In Physics?

What do spooky science experiments, superconductors, stargazing, and the Girl Scouts have in common? They’re part of the outreach and research efforts of IPFW’s Department of Physics! Beyond their packed research and teaching schedules, in their free time, IPFW’s physics faculty, staff, and students develop diverse physics demonstrations (demos) that help the department develop excellent physics majors for the local, regional, and national workforce while inspiring the next generation of physics majors.

In October 2016, the Department of Physics is sponsoring two interestingly distinct outreach events: a star party and a Halloween-themed demo show. Physics’ fourth annual Spooky Halloween Demo Show, with “frightening displays of physics that will blow your mind,” takes place on October 28. Audiences of all ages are encouraged to attend this event. Student workers will be handing out candy to costumed children. The event opens with a hands-on session, at which attendees can play with a Van der Graaf static electricity generator, explore sound and light, and build smoke-ring generators. Then guests will watch the performance of spooky physics demonstrations, such as the terror-inducing “bed of nails”: a student will lie down on a bed of nails, and have a steel plate and then a concrete block placed on top. Then… [message redacted]. Oops! The public is welcome to attend to find out the fate of this pressured physics student! AND it’s all explained through physics! See more on this event.

The star party was part of the grand opening of the Undergraduate Fun Observatory (UFO). Guests were invited to take tours of the observatory and star-gaze with user-friendly telescopes and guides from the Fort Wayne Astronomical Society. The new observatory will be used for research, teaching, outreach, and community projects. Event coordinator Steve Gillam (assistant professor, physics) said that the observatory “will used for training IPFW students in observational astronomy and for public outreach. I plan to have public star-gazing events once-a-month and make the telescope available for remote use by the public.” See here for location and event details.

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Physics Students at Science Central

And while these events are exciting, they are but two of the many outreach events IPFW’s Department of Physics offers to help community members and potential physics students explore the universe. They have created hands-on demo shows for the Fort Wayne Community School Choice Fair, participated in the IPFW Sponsorship Day at Science Central, and the Girl Scouts STEM Fair.

Partnering with the Girl Scouts of Northern Indiana-Michiana is especially important according to Mark Masters, professor and chair, “Physics has few female majors and physicists, and it’s an ongoing problem. So we are starting a push to appeal to more women and minorities, because it’s critical to have more voices within the field.” And the department is beginning to see results of their efforts: this year the incoming 2016-17 freshman class of physics majors is 40% female.

The key to getting more students majoring in physics and attracting women and minorities is twofold: showing potential students the fun and interesting nature of physics and getting them interested before college. Many incoming college freshmen overlook physics as a major because either they don’t know what it is or it seems too difficult. That’s why the physics department hosts so many outreach activities that appeal to younger audiences.

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Students at the 2016 Physics Research Camp

In response to studies showing that middle school and high school students progressively lose interest in STEM topics, members of the physics department began developing summer math and science camp programs to help increase an interest in these areas. The department currently offers two summer camps: the Physics Exploration Camp and the Math & Science Camp. The Physics Exploration Camp targets high school students and gives campers the chance to experience a variety of topics in experimental physics. The Math & Science Camp was created more than eighteen years ago for middle schoolers. It involves building water rockets, hot air balloons, Lego robots, cardboard gliders, and more. These camps introduce kids to physics in a fun environment.

But faculty and students in the physics department do more at IPFW than community outreach. They positively impact Fort Wayne community and the wider discipline of physics through scholarly research. Many of these are collaborative projects with students. Students in the physics department are required to do at least one year of research before graduation, which benefits both professional and academic resumes. Professor David Maloney is currently co-writing an academic article with alumna Catherine Harber (physics, ’16) about how students learn physics, what “common sense” ideas they have about classroom topics, and the effect instructors can have on changing these preconceived notions.

Students often create design, test, and redesign objects for their research projects. They design and create a variety of objects, including a high voltage lifter, super conductors, photon imaging, aerogels, and lasers. These undergraduates are working on very complex projects. Continuing Lecturer Jacob Millspaw’s students’ research projects involve creating a sputtering deposition chamber, designing a single photon detector, and attempting to use a scanning tunneling microscope to image surfaces. Many of these students end up working in the NE Indiana region, and having local workers who understand teaching practices, can write academic papers, or are able to create and design benefits the entire Fort Wayne community.

Faculty members also present their own research in academic journals and at conferences. Assistant Professor Merrell Johnson, a biophysicist, is currently designing and constructing a scanning probe microscope to study the structure and behavior of cell membranes on a nanoscale. Associate Professor Desiderio Vasquez is a two-time Fulbright Scholar who investigates the formation of patterns in physico-chemical systems driven by diffusion, fluid motions, and chemical reactions. Associate Professor Gang Wang works on optical tracking, which explores how light can be used to manipulate objects on a microscopic level. Gillam researches star clusters, and presented his work in 2015 at the 29th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union in Honolulu, Hawaii. These are only a few examples of research occurring in the physics department, but even this brief glimpse show how diverse and important research is to IPFW and the department. Conducting faculty-driven research gives the IPFW physics department more prestige and develops new ideas in the field.

Curious about the physics or IPFW’s Department of Physics? Check out their Facebook pages for event info or contact the office for more information.

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