Slinky Sounds, Video Vibes on Cloud Nine: Colorado State’s Little Shop of Physics Free Open House Makes Science Real, Fun and Understandable

Using the atmosphere to crush a 55-gallon drum, playing Mozart on pieces of electrical conduit and building a reverb unit from a Slinky toy will show thousands of students and their parents that science is fun, understandable and accessible.

Colorado State University’s Little Shop of Physics free open house Feb. 20 is expected to draw between 2,000-3,000 youngsters (and adults) as visitors manipulate hands-on science experiments and watch demonstrations between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. in the North Ballroom and Cherokee Park Room of Lory Student Center.

Special presentations will include:

  • The "Physics of Music," compositions by Mozart and Bach played on sewer pipe and nails dropped on a brick, and the playing of unusual instruments such as a PVC trombone, made out of one-half and three-quarter-inch PVC tubing.
  • "Under Pressure," which uses air pressure to levitate a beach ball, lift a half-dozen students off the floor and crush a 55-gallon drum from which the air has been pumped.
  • "The 1,000,000 Volt Tesla Coil," a device that generates about one million volts at high frequencies and shoots an array of sparks and streamers into the air and through the body of the presenter.

In addition to the special displays, a series of new exhibits will build – literally – on an informal theme of "simple science with second-hand stuff." Built from spare and salvaged parts, they will include:

  • Slinky Sounds, an audio unit built from an old stereo amplifier and a Slinky toy that adds echo and reverb to a voice;
  • Video Vibes, an old television set that helps watchers visualize sound waves generated by a small, donated keyboard; and
  • Cloud Nine, a device "made from the guts of a humidifier" that generates enough fog to be scooped up and poured.

Held in conjunction with the physics department’s annual Physics Bowl competition for high-school students, the open house brings both school groups and children with parents to what coordinator Brian Jones describes as a "traveling science museum."

The intent of the Little Shop is to get youngsters interested in science in general and physics in particular at an early age. During the regular school year, Jones and a group of undergraduate physics students take the traveling show to some 50 schools in Fort Collins and all over the state. Over the past six years, the Little Shop of Physics crew has made presentations to more than 100,000 students in area schools. The Little Shop staff has presented its program to community groups, groups visiting Colorado State and at the annual February open house.

"These experiments work for people at different levels," Jones said. "Our favorite is to watch kids bringing excitement and a willingness to explore and notice things and to observe the parents help their kids make sense of it all."

For example, Jones said, the Little Shop crew has constructed a homemade plasma ball, a large glass ball filled with bright ribbons of gas. Young children enjoy putting their hands on it, and watching the brightly colored streamers in the gas inside the ball follow the motion of their hands.

Older children notice that when they put their hands on the ball, nearby fluorescent light bulbs light up. And their parents can help them discover that if they put one hand on the ball and one on a light bulb, the energy from the streamers in the ball will go through their body and light the light bulb.

"I talk about the importance of the program in service learning for Colorado State students and how it gives people a chance to see that science isn’t scary or intimidating," Jones said. "Science is something anyone can do.

"But what keeps people coming back to find out about it is the cool stuff – building a reverb unit from a Slinky or crushing a 55-gallon drum. This is the spirit of science that gets kids excited."