W&M Physics at Y.E.S. Science Night


Jeni Hackett, class of 2014, demonstrates how thin films of nail polish on water produce colorful rainbow patterns.

At the Yorktown Elementary School Science Night W&M students and faculty impressed and amazed visitors with a variety of interactive demos organized by Prof. Irina Novikova and Prof. Wouter Deconinck, with the help of the Society of Physics Students. The night began with a hunt through Small Hall for a proper receptacle for the bubble solution and loading up cars with the necessary equipment for the event. Armed with a conveniently borrowed recycling bin along with the apparatuses for the other five stations, two professors and six students headed out for the science magnet school Yorktown Elementary. It was the third year that the W&M Physics Department volunteered at it.

Outreach events are popular amongst the Physics Department, and events such as Laserfest and Physicsfest plus attending the two previous Science Night helped to create an interesting and unique program of events. In fact, it was clear just by looking around the room that the professors and students working each station were having just as much (if not more) fun as the visitors themselves. Each demonstration invited the children to take a hands-on approach to the scientific concept at hand. Stations covered an array of physical topics, including a thin film corner where guests could make intricate shapes with bubble solutions and wire frames or create their own bookmark with an iridescent thin film made from clear nail polish and water, a microwave demo with expanding Peeps and exploding CDs, a discharge lamp station that enabled visitors to see the line emission spectra of different gases, a pressure strength station that challenged visitors to pry apart suction cups, and, arguably the star of the show, a Van der Graff generator that showcased static electricity in action.

Not only did the demos interest visitors, but they inspired scientific thought in them as well. At my station making thin film bookmarks, for example, I received questions such as, “What would happen if you used a colored nail polish instead of clear?” or “How would this work with white paper instead of black?” Some visitors asked to change the demonstration a bit, using bits of white paper or their own fingers to catch the thin film and see how that changed the experiment.

This enthusiasm extended to all the stations. “All the kids were really excited about playing with the bubbles. Some of them kept coming back!” sophomore Elana Urbach commented. “It’s nice because it’s really easy to play with bubbles at home, too, so it’s an experiment they can keep coming back to.”

In fact, many stations utilized at-home items that would be easy to replicate at home, which might lead to some further investigation from the visitors. The discharge lamp station, run by Prof. Wouter Deconinck, sent kids home with diffraction glasses so they could continue to explore what makes up light, and both thin film stations used common, every-day items. Even the Van der Graff and microwave stations explored an every-day scientific phenomenon that kids could link directly to their personal experience, making the stations that much more interesting to a developing scientific mind.