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Word problems to world problems

Kelly Shorelin, physics lab instructor, working with a Van de Graaff (electrostatic) generator. Chris Hammond photo

By Kelly Foss

The word is getting out – physics is cool.

Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography head Brad de Young says that's the message they've been hearing from students at all levels and from the general public as the department continues to work on expanding their public outreach programs in the province.

Most recently the department partnered with CBC Radio to promote the 2012 CBC Massey Lecture, featuring physicist Neil Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont.

Working with CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show host Anthony Germaine and producer Marie Wadden to promote the Wednesday, Oct. 10, event at the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre, the department aired a physics question of the day during the week leading up to the lecture.

"Brad and his department were just so amenable to having me come over and record their questions," said Ms. Wadden. "These spots went on the Morning Show and the listeners, whoever got the right answer, we will do a draw and they will get tickets to the lecture and a copy of Neil Turok's book. Participants can also enter to win a trip to the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo and to see the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Austria."

Dr. de Young says the questions covered several disciplines within physics and were posed by faculty (including one from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics), staff and students. Questions varied from why do hurricanes rotate in a counter-clockwise motion to why does hot water freeze in your ice cube tray faster than cold.

"We intentionally chose people of different ages, genders and perspectives to demonstrate the diversity of physics and how different the approaches can be so that the questions demonstrated the wide range of interests within the discipline," he said. "Some of the questions connected locally to things we are doing here at Memorial while some were more universal.

"When people, particularly students, solve a physics problem, even a very simple one, at the same time they are learning some of the skills to tackle more difficult problems," he added. "Once you have the tools to do physics, which includes mathematical tools, you can look at problems that aren't just word problems, but world problems. Problem solving and the ability to problem solve is why physicists end up tackling challenges in the real world that don't even look like physics, like modelling economics, for example."

Outreach activities like those done by the department and the Perimeter Institute go a long way towards firing the imagination of students and show that physics is about more than just formulas in a book.

"What we found in working with the Perimeter Institute on their recent outreach programs in St. John's, which brought together students from across the region to spend a day with two of their physics teachers, was that students loved the hands-on activities," said Ms. Wadden. "We heard that these students are afraid to speak up a lot in their own classrooms because they don't want to be considered geeks or whatever. But bring them all together and now there is a space for people to play with physics and come up with new ideas.

"As Dave Fish of the Perimeter Institute said to me, the students may not invent something new today but this may be laying the foundation for something that will be invented in the future."

From participating in summer enrichment programs like Shad Valley to working with the Eastern School District to offer mini courses to junior high school students in the spring of the year, Dr. de Young says the point is to show people what physics really is and how we can use the approaches of physics to understand the world around us.

"We have kids become students of physics here at Memorial who say they can remember five years ago when we visited and did demonstrations at their school," he said. "When they see or can experience something genuine it becomes very real for them. Students remember and pay attention."

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