CSU’s Little Shop of Physics teaches children science in true Bill Nye-fashion

Matthew Smith

It was a scene straight out of a “Bill Nye The Science Guy” episode. Aluminum cans spinning in a magnetic field, beach balls seemingly levitating in mid-air, laser beams traveling down the arc of a falling water jet. Table after table of fascinating science demonstrations filled a classroom at Lesher Middle School and, between them, dozens of kids screamed in excitement.

This is the Little Shop of Physics, a science museum in a box blowing minds around the globe. This CSU-born organization tours the country and beyond, bringing with it a spectacular approach to science education. Kids from grade school up to high school are given hands-on interaction with some of the most interesting physical phenomena capable of being boxed up and put on the road.

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Fey Schnarr and Sheila Ferguson from the Little Shop of Physics test different colored filters over images. The filters change the perception of the original colors. For example the color green would appear black under a red filter. Photo credit: Brooke Buchan

 

Heather Michalak, the Little Shop’s Outreach Coordinator, has seen this troupe through its 26 continuous years at CSU.

“We truly believe that you learn science by doing and not necessarily by being lectured to,” Michalak said.

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In an experiment titled “Laser Waterfall” red lasers are pointed horizontally through holes where water pours out and are reflected through the streams onto ping pong balls below. Photo credit: Brooke Buchan

 

The Little Shop embodies this principle through its vast collection of handmade science experiments. Volunteers and staff think up and create these hands-on lessons and bring them on trips to schools every week.

Since its inception Little Shop has inspired over half a million kids. An average day may see over seven hundred.

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The Little Shop of Physics puts together numerous experiments to show to schools and students. Glass rods suspended inside these two bottles appear invisible when submerged in oil because the oil takes away the ability for them to refract light. Photo credit: Brooke Buchan

 

This group attracts students of all majors and backgrounds. Joras Oliveira, a freshman physics major from Brazil and recent Little Shop inductee, said the program provides great experiences.

“Everyone here is super nice,” Oliveira said. “Pretty positive so far.”

Michalak said the team’s diversity of personalities is what makes the program great.

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“It’s given us a lot of flavor and a lot of our creativity,” Michalak said.

Travel is not limited locally. Large trips are conducted every winter with the most recent being to Todos Santos, Mexico. Last year the Little Shop took their program to Namibia, and they visit the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation every Thanksgiving.

“Sharing science with people in different cultures really makes you a better teacher,” Michalak said.

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At the Little Shop of Physics Denny Heyrmand experiments with bending light through plexiglass objects, mirrors and fiber optics in order to create a maze dealing with the refraction of light. Photo credit: Brooke Buchan

 

The Little Shop went on their first trip of the semester Jan. 26, visiting Lesher Middle School in Fort Collins. Many of the team members who went along were first timers fresh out of training.

One such volunteer was Joras Oliveira, a freshman physics major from Brazil. Oliveira said he loves the reactions the experiments get out of kids.

“There are some experiments that, whenever the kids are playing with them, they are just like ‘oh my god,’ and you can see how their minds are blown,” Oliveria said.

Whenever the science is too subtle or scary to do in the classroom the Little Shop makes videos.

Director of Video Production Patrick Lindsell has been with the team for three years. Having done film and television work in Zimbabwe and Britain Lindsell applies his storied skills in creating accessible physics demonstrations for educators around the world.

Lindell said the Namibia trip in particular pointed out the importance of what the Little Shop aims to achieve.

“Africa is generally underserved in educational outreach,” Lindsell said. “(Little Shop) changed people’s perception on potentially how they should be teaching.”

The Little Shop is always open to new volunteers, no matter the year or major. They will be hosting an open house at the LSC on Feb. 25. Michalak ensures it will be a great time to meet the staff and play with over three hundred demonstrations.