Physics Students Journey to CU Boulder for Lasers, Lenses and Learning

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As a physics student and mountain biking enthusiast in college, I never imagined I would have the opportunity to combine these two activities. Eagle Rock’s support of interdisciplinary courses has allowed me to do just that by teaching physics through the lens of mountain biking.

The Physics of Motion class here at Eagle Rock School focuses on scientific investigation and experimentation both in the classroom and out on bikes. From Newton’s Laws to gear ratios and rotational speed calculations, we’ve dug deep into the exploration of mechanical physics.

Eagle Rock High School Mountain Biking

When my co-instructor, Ally Bolger (Eagle Rock’s 2015/2016 Public Allies Teaching Fellow In Science), and I first read over the class enrollment list, we were surprised to find all of our students were female. To celebrate the rarity of an all-female physics class, we looked into support groups for diversity in science and came across the Women In Physics collective at The University of Colorado, Boulder.

As a teacher, attempting to arrange field trips can often mean sending email after email with no success or even response. In this situation, my introductory email to Women In Physics was met with welcome enthusiasm. The collaboration took hold on both sides; the education-focused physics department at the University went to work putting together a panel of physicists, and our class developed background knowledge on women and diversity in science.

Eagle Rock High School Physics Students

Students created projects about women in science, producing posters to showcase the significance of a scientist to the community. As a class, we shed light on the accomplishments of Alice Ball, France Cordova, Marie Maynard Daly, and many other scientists who have made serious developments in biology, medicine, astronomy and physics.

Driving down to Boulder from Estes Park on the day of our visit, I was filled with all of my typical field trip anxieties: Would the students be super bored? Would the content tie in with our classwork? Would anyone make meaningful connections?

When we arrived, we stood in a midst of a room filled with machines — stacked floor to ceiling — most emitting whirring sounds and beeping noises, and my apprehensions disappeared.

We were in a laboratory, with lasers and vacuums and molecules frozen close to absolute zero. And there in front of us was an associate professor of physics to guide us through these mechanical mysteries. We were in the Cold Molecules lab of Heather Lewandowski, who shared her favorite part of the profession: that when you discover something new, absolutely no one else in the world knows what you and your team know. Until you publish, that is.

We continued on to another lab, where we witnessed —through protective eyewear, of course — a high-powered laser that was ionizing particles into plasma, creating a beautiful, chaotic light burst, magnified through lenses. Students were very interested in the application of this lab work to localized x-ray technology.

All amped up on lasers and the complex research posters lining the hallway, we then met with a group of women involved in physics from all levels. Gathered as a panel, the group consisted of undergraduates, graduate students in many realms of physics, a post-doctoral candidate, and an associate professor. Our students asked insightful questions, and the panel members enthusiastically responded. From curious inquires about the many branches of physics, to personal questions about how to succeed when faced with failure, and practical wonderings about studying physics in college, the panelists replied with excitement for their practice and a strong support of young learners.

After a while, the panel dismissed into small conversations for discussions about school, support systems, lasers, tests, and diversity in the field of science. As we walked back across the beautiful sunny campus to our bus, I was so grateful for students who love to learn, a school that supports us in teaching what we dream of teaching, and a new collaboration with people who are excited to share their passion with young learners.

In their own words, here are some of our student’s greatest take-aways:

  • How hard it is sometimes — but you can’t do it just by yourself. You need a team to help you at all times when it comes to physics. — Brianna
  • An insight on work to innovate lasers for x-rays. It was amazing and beautiful to see the laser in action as it beamed off of different lenses, which created a ball of colors. — Stacy
  • I have an insight on how college is, and that I don’t need to be perfect to get accepted. — Chemi
  • Not only did I learn about what it takes to be a woman in physics through the Q and A, but what it takes to make it through college. I really connected to the part about having a strong support system. — Javonnie
  • I learned that physics is literally in everything. I never knew how physics can blow minds, because it sure did mine! My favorite experience was seeing how the lasers can move with electric boxes and seeing how it can change colors. — Berenice.

If you’re an educator and you like to now more about how we engage student in their own education — or if you’d like tips on how to approach and then work with a location college or university in the ways described in this write up, please contact us through the Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center online contact form.

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Helen-Higgins-Eagle-Rock-School-FellowAbout The Author: Helen Higgins is the 2015/2016 Public Allies Teaching Fellow In Math at the Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colo. There, Helen spends her time discussing ideas with students and being inspired by their curiosity and creativity. Helen concentrated in math and art at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., where she discovered mathematics is the purest form of artistic expression. Prior to Eagle Rock, she led backcountry trips for high school and college students, taught on a farm, and coached skiing for the Adaptive Sports Center of Crested Butte, Colo.

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