CSU's Little Shop of Physics visits Central Elementary in Longmont

Originally posted in The Times-Call >>

Central Elementary students squealed, chattered and pointed Thursday as they were introduced to Colorado State University's Little Shop of Physics.

The Little Shop of Physics features 100 hands-on science experiments built by CSU undergraduates. The staff takes the exhibit — full of household objects that blink, spin, levitate or roll — to schools all over the world. While they usually stay within an hour's drive of Fort Collins, the Little Shop of Physics visited Italy in 2017 and Namibia in January.

Central Elementary art teacher Jason Gage said that he has been planning the Little Shop of Physics visit to the school for more than a year. He knew about the opportunity because his wife used to work for the program and he hosted it at his previous school, Spangler Elementary.

The experiments were spread across tables in two rooms at Central Elementary. In a dark room, students controlled lights with sensors, peered through special sunglasses and tested different materials in ultraviolet light, among several other experiments.

Fourth-grader Magnus Henry was hard to keep up with as he bounced all over the dark room, trying out experiment after experiment.

"This is very nice because you get to see and feel different experiments that you can do around here," Henry said, shaking vials of fluorescent liquids in the light from a blacklight.

"It feels so great, I just think — oh, wait, I haven't checked this one," he said, running over to a station where polarized lenses produced different shapes when the children stared at display of lights that spelled out "LSOP." He gasped when the first pair of glasses he picked up turned all the lights into miniature CSU Ram logos.

Fellow fourth-grader Sophia Chleborad said that she was impressed with the experiments.

"I think it's really cool, all of that. I was really surprised that they all worked because if I tried to do it, there would be no way it would always work," she said, while walking from the gymnasium to the dark room. "My favorite so far was the one where you grab someone's hand and it lights up."

Heather Michalak, the assistant director of the Little Shop of Physics, said that the program spreads science to school children but also teaches the CSU undergraduates plenty.

"Kids are natural scientists, and I believe that all of us are. They're curious about a thing and they want to know how it works and what it'll do," Michalak said. "For the undergraduates, it's a learning experience for them as well because they have to make an experiment..., it has to be robust so that kids can use it all day, it has to be safe and it has to be engaging."

Outside the dark room, CSU student Rosa Chavez sat on the carpet attempting to fix her oscillating ornaments experiment. The experiment featured three fused metallic spheres that rotate like a fidget spinner on a mirrored surface. When the kids shine different colors of light on the spinning spheres, different lights are reflected and refracted.

Chavez said the college students try their best to make the experiments "kid-proof" by banging, pulling and bashing up the projects after they build them. But in this case, the glue holding the spheres to the spinning mechanism failed. Chavez said that wants to be a pediatrician one day so working with the Little Shop of Physics has given her the opportunity to teach kids about science.

"I love working with kids and watching them learn," she said. "It's fun watching them figure something out with every experiment they touch, especially the girls because we need more women in the STEM field."

Gage said Thursday morning that he had already heard Central Elementary students shouting things like "I love science now!" and that in itself was rewarding.

"I did send out a list of (scientific) concepts to the other teacher if they want to follow-up with the kids," he said. "It's nice to see the kids so interested when they see something happen and wondering what made it do that. And the experiments are made of household objects, so it's good for them to start to look at their normal world with a new fascination."