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On the Road Again

June 30, 2017

The ASU Society of Physics Students (SPS) has the right idea – take a road trip every spring right after graduation.

For 12 straight years, students on the SPS Peer Pressure Team have piled into vans and trekked all over Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico giving physics demonstrations to public school students of all ages. This year, nine SPS members participated in the “Physics Road Trip,” along with their advisor, Dr. Trey Holik of the ASU physics faculty. 

“The trip is totally orchestrated by the students,” Holik said. “This year, they wanted to go west. So they contacted several rural schools in West Texas and New Mexico to set up demonstrations.” 

Over the week of May 15-20, the group covered more than 1,000 miles and presented five physics “shows” for more than 1,100 students at four schools in Pecos, Fort Stockton and Hobbs, N.M. Each show featured 15 demonstrations of scientific concepts using props that ranged from liquid nitrogen and nitrogen-filled balloons to Tesla coils, a bed of nails, vortex cannons and a laser light show. This was the third road trip for SPS member Jose Duran, a senior from San Angelo. 

Jose Duran Jose Duran “Science shows on TV explore things without you,” Duran said. “We want the young students at our demonstrations to explore alongside us. We’ve done the demos many times, so we are like the tour guides. It’s less like we are showing and telling, and more like we are exploring science together. It’s not just the knowledge of science we are trying to instill in them, but a real curiosity and a sense of adventure.” 

And the road trip is also a learning experience for the SPS members. 

Dr. Trey Holik Dr. Trey Holik “Several of them did the same demo for all five shows,” Holik said. “The first time, they stumbled a bit and had a harder time being interactive with the audience. But by the final shows, they were very interactive and the students in the audience loved the shows. After one of the later shows, a little fourth- or fifth-grade girl walked out the door saying, ‘This was the best day of my life! I loved this show!’” 

“It’s always satisfying as an educator, to see those two levels” he added. “To see your own students on the trip go from being non-interactive and kind of dry to developing this persona on stage to present physics – and then also to see the fruit of their labor shown in the excitement of the students in the audience. That was really satisfying and worth driving 1,000 miles for.” 

In addition to the physics shows, the road trip always includes several outings for the SPS members and culminates with a science excursion. This year, they went hiking near Alpine and Carlsbad, N.M., visited Carlsbad Caverns, and wrapped up with a trip to the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis. But for many of them, it’s still all about the physics demos. 

Derik Bullard Derik Bullard “My favorite part of the trip is that we are really reaching the kids,” said SPS president Derik Bullard of Amarillo. “We’re getting them interested in the sciences and, hopefully, motivating some of them to explore something in the sciences when they get to college.” 

Other SPS members who made this year’s road trip were Alyssa Davenport-Herbst and Kathleen Rogers of San Angelo, Daniel Anable of Temple, Michael Burt of Albuquerque, N.M., Jonathan Carter of Española, N.M., Sean Czarnecki of Meridian, Idaho, and Luis Romo Villa of Torreon, Coahuila, Mexico. 

Considering this was Holik’s first year as trip advisor, it couldn’t have gone better. 

“Other faculty members who have led the trip told horror stories of broken-down vehicles and lost reservations,” Holik said. “But this trip ran extremely smooth. No breakdowns, no hiccups at any of the hotels, and all the schools were set up and ready for us. It was pain-free and stress-free, a very enjoyable trip.” 

“These are the types of things a physics educator works for,” he added. “To see a group of students come together and wear themselves out to present physics, and then go to a star-gazing party together, was awesome. I’m very glad I went and I’m looking forward to next year.”

(More photos and videos of the Peer Pressure Team’s road trip and physics demonstrations are available on the SPS Facebook page.)