Swarthmore Physicists Venture Out of the Lab, into the Classroom

By Linda Hou '13
Swarthmore physicists return to the high school classroom
Swarthmore physicists return to the high school classroom, giving demonstrations to students at New Beginnings Academy in nearby Chester, Pa.

This spring, the students in physicist Frank Moscatelli's Introductory Mechanics course are not only learning themselves, but they are also helping others to learn. Moscatelli and Physics Lecturer Adam Neat added a new component to the lab course by having the Swarthmore students give demonstrations to high school students at New Beginnings Academy in nearby Chester, Pa.

"It forces you to think about physics at a very fundamental level, and sometimes you realize you really don't understand the phenomenon as well  as you had thought," says Moscatelli, Edward Hicks Magill Professor of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. "It's a really positive learning experience for the students. By giving knowledge, they're also gaining knowledge."

Physics Lecturer Adam Neat, who had experience with a similar project as an undergraduate student, first suggested the idea. With the help of the College's Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, the two were connected with New Beginnings, a K - 12 private school which has one science teacher and minimal labroratory equipment.  

At the beginning of the semester, the Swarthmore students were paired off to work on a set of lab demonstrations, and each pair was asked to prepare a short demonstration on a  fundamental principle of physics to be shared with the younger students.

"Preparing for it was a fun and deceivingly difficult task. Not only simplifying but also presenting relatively complex ideas and principles of physics to younger students requires both an intimate understanding of what is actually going on and a desire to share that knowledge with others in a way that may interest them in the elegant world of science," says Stefan Tuomanen Masure '15 from Germantown, Tenn., who conducted a demonstration on air pressure and vacuums with Danielle Greenberg '15, from Winter Park, Fla.    

The groups first presented their lessons to classmates and members of the physics faculty, and then to the children at the New Beginnings Academy.

Jorin Schug '15, who has three years of experience presenting science to children while working at the Franklin Institute Science Museum, saw his demonstration on wave interference as a reinforcement of his previous experiences. "Having to teach the material only increased my understanding, not to mention the understanding of the audience," says Schug, from Wyndmoor, Pa. "While I gained new knowledge of waves and physics, this experience reinforced how great it is to teach and to spread learning opportunities."