Inside Rensselaer
Volume 6, No. 14, September 28, 2012
   
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Mark Century

Rensselaer Engineers Help High School Students Explore Everyday Physics

Professor Patrick Underhill and senior Hannah Fix spent the summer developing four “kits” that contain everything needed for researchers to run workshops on fluid physics at local high schools. Photo by Daria Robbins
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Rensselaer Engineers Help High School Students Explore Everyday Physics

Educational outreach is a critical component of nearly every research grant awarded by the federal government or other funding organizations. Along with conducting experiments and documenting the results, grant recipients are tasked with reaching out to high schools and lower schools to help expose and excite students about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Not every grant recipient, however, knows how or where to start these outreach activities.

Professor Patrick Underhill and senior Hannah Fix spent the summer developing four “kits” that contain everything needed for researchers to run a fun-filled, memorable educational outreach workshop on the topic of fluid physics at their local high school. Along with different everyday objects—from water guns to corn syrup to caulk—the kits include worksheets for students, presentation slides, and a teacher’s guide. The kits are field-tested, peer-reviewed, and intended to be donated to the high school so teachers can duplicate the demonstrations and experiments.

“We want to arm researchers with the right tools to make their educational outreach programs as impactful as possible, and to help inspire high school students to pursue a university degree and maybe even a career in science, technology,
engineering, or math.”—Patrick Underhill

“We believe these kits are a great way to illustrate some of the basic principles of fluid physics that are taught in high school physics and chemistry classes,” said Underhill, assistant professor in the Howard P. Isermann Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “We want to arm researchers and graduate students with the right tools to make their educational outreach programs as impactful as possible, and to help inspire and encourage high school students to pursue a university degree and maybe even a career in science, technology, engineering, or math.”

Fix, an aerospace and mechanical engineering major from Frederick, Md., has been working with Underhill to develop and refine the kits. She said the kits were designed to include everyday objects that are familiar to the students, but also easy and inexpensive for the teacher to replace if lost or broken. Worksheets in the kits guide the students through the activity. Students are introduced to the topics and then calculate theoretical results using formulas, before conducting the experiments and comparing the theoretical results with the experimental data.

“Most of the experiments are things you see in everyday life. We’re using these kits to get the students interested and excited in the physics behind these everyday things,” said Fix, who intended to study veterinary medicine but was inspired by her high school’s robotics club to pursue engineering.

The kits were informed by direct feedback from high school teachers. Additionally, Underhill and Fix planned to send out about a dozen kits to graduate students and university professors. These test users will run workshops with the kits at their local high schools, and provide feedback and suggestions that will be incorporated into the final kits. Once finalized, Underhill plans to spread word about the kits and send them out free of charge to interested university professors and graduate students so they may run high school outreach events. Following the event, the kits will be left with the high school teachers for later use. The final kits are expected to be available in November.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 6, Number 14, September 28, 2012
©2012 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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