Orange Alert

Reaching Out: Grad Students Inspire and Teach Local High Schoolers

Posted on: Dec. 15, 2021

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It was quite an extraordinary journey for both Merrill Asp and Sarthak Gupta last summer. Asp and Gupta successfully demonstrated one of the fascinating instruments of their lab before groups of kids from local high schools in an outreach program funded by the New York State branch of the American Physical Society. The device is called a rheometer, commonly used in experimental material science research, primarily to quantify the viscoelastic properties of polymer networks and other soft materials. That is, where a material like Jell-O or tofu falls between being solid-like and liquid-like. However, this is rarely known at the high school level, predominantly because of the course contents in the high school level but also because of the fact that the equipment is expensive. While a standard rheometer can cost on average $200,000 and is not easily portable, the basic principle of the rheometer is straightforward, and that led Merrill and Sarthak to design an interactive lesson around it and the physics it teaches. Each lesson focuses on one concept, introducing it, showing a live demo, doing a worksheet and also has hands-on group activity. Using these methods, they explain how they use this concept in their own research and what are still open questions in soft matter physics. Currently, Merrill is pursuing PhD under Prof. Alison Patteson; working on swarming bacterial colonies and fruiting bodies and Sarthak is pursuing PhD under Prof. Jen Schwarz and Prof. Alison Patteson; working on chromatin, cell and tissue dynamics in the Physics department at Syracuse University. Dr. Patteson’s lab partnered with local high school physics teacher Elise Jutzeler to design an inexpensive and portable classroom rheometer, (which Merrill and Sarthak later presented in their outreach program). The rheometer demonstration is just one example, with the active role of these two graduate students and others, the Physics department of Syracuse University is getting more involved with local high schools.

Besides research, Merrill and Sarthak are passionate about teaching and contributing to the community. It was no wonder they were always looking for opportunities to teach science through volunteering and outreach. When they saw the call for outreach proposals on the American Physical Society’s New York State Section website during this spring, they decided to write a grant application together, titled, as Sarthak mentioned, “taking Physics from universities to local high schools.” Since the grant was approved, two lessons in soft matter physics have been developed, and the team has interacted with four high school teachers teaching seven high school classes across three schools, as well as two summer camp groups at Syracuse's Museum of Science and Technology (MOST). The volunteer group has grown to include graduate students Prashali Chauhan, Renita Saldanha, Nimisha Krishnan and Shabeeb Ameen, as well as SPS (School of Professional Studies) undergraduate Matt Cufari , who all visited schools and contributed to developing the outreach lessons into their final form. The team is now planning to revisit schools in the coming spring. Teachers and the enthusiastic high schoolers were delighted when they got an opportunity to learn science from someone outside of the classroom. When showing the kids output plotted from the rheometer in real time, Merrill was surprised by how many students enjoyed interpreting the graphs. Students expressed remarkable curiosity by asking questions and were highly interactive during and after the lesson. A few of them even asked about the journey to grad school or what a typical day for a researcher looks like. This was a great result for the outreach program, which works to motivate high schoolers to take Physics/STEM at the college level.

One thing Merrill and Sarthak hope to address with their outreach program is the disconnection between the way researchers apply knowledge and the way students learn physics in grade school. The department has a long history of communicating with high school teachers about physics in the greater Syracuse and New York areas. Merrill mentioned Prof. Allen Miller, who has been running a program for high school teachers for the last 30 years. This network, along with personal contacts of other members of the department, helped them immensely with setting up initial contacts with high school teachers. However, regarding the communication gap, Merrill had this insight to offer, “When I was a high school student, I remember feeling like university was a big unknown I was venturing into... It would have been helpful for me to see more and hear more from undergraduate and graduate students so that I could know what to expect in my future. Oftentimes in graduate school we have so much to do we forget about the communities we live in, so anything to give graduate students an incentive or a means to give back is helpful. I think this is a general need, not just unique to Syracuse.” Based on conversations with other outreach mentors like engineering Prof. Peter Plumley, he continued, “There is a significant ‘leak in the pipeline’ between middle school and high school where students, especially in underprivileged areas, drop out before they have had a chance to complete their education. Good outreach experiences can be the difference between a student staying in school or dropping out.”

The outreach program was beneficial for Merrill and Sarthak from many different perspectives. They learned and gained experience in research grant writing – a valuable skill in academia. The experience led them to collaborate with colleagues, and they learned about budgeting and planning logistics. During the program, they needed to organize every aspect of the project, so organizational experience was gained throughout. In addition, scientists often struggle to explain complicated topics to a general audience. Such outreach programs can be helpful practice for the future. When I asked Merrill about it, he said, “As a physicist, I feel that it is part of my job to synthesize the fuzzy, complicated details of our subject into a clear form for other scientists and the general public.”

So, what’s the future of this outreach program? The outreach program will continue, future graduate and undergraduate students are welcome to take part. It has the potential to expand even more rapidly with more lessons, demo plans and more schools’ participation. Prof. Jennifer Ross has established an outreach committee to have an environment where all departmental outreach projects could be discussed and learn from other’s work and experience. Merrill and Sarthak are part of the committee as graduate student members with their program incorporated among other departmental outreach works. Future participants can also contact students or faculty members who are currently involved in the program for any further information.

Merrill and Sarthak thanked Prof. Jen Schwarz and Prof. Alison Patteson, who provided them further motivation and helped them to edit the grant application draft. They also thanked Prof. Jennifer Ross, who encouraged them a lot along the road and provided strategic directions for grant writing.